During many crises there is uncertainty regarding the cause, and the airline industry is a great example.
A few of weeks ago, an Air New Zealand flight was forced to return to Auckland mid-flight, and initially it wasn't clear why.
Was it because Air New Zealand didn't submit the proper paperwork to the Chinese authorities? Or was it because of difficulties in the diplomatic relationship between the two countries which caused the Chinese to take action against Air New Zealand?
How the public attributes blame has important implications for Air New Zealand.
If the public believes the cause of the crisis is related to Air New Zealand, passengers may reconsider flying with the carrier unless they can be assured it won't happen again.
On the other hand, if the public believes the event occurred due to strained relations between China and New Zealand, the public will not judge the company harshly.
This is because people will understand that Air New Zealand did not have control over the situation.
When there is uncertainty regarding the cause of a crisis, in many instances, companies conduct investigations.
However, investigations can take months or years to complete and, in certain situations, the public will not wait to assess blame for a crisis.
The public also differs from a jury that assesses blame during a trial. A jury has to follow strict rules in arriving at a verdict. The public, on the other hand, can assess blame without the need to follow guidelines, which increases the likelihood of biases influencing the outcome.
When is the public most likely to feel pressure to assess blame for a crisis before the findings from an investigation are available?
The severity of a crisis plays an important role. If the severity of a crisis is high, the uncertainty regarding the cause becomes very threatening to people, and a coping mechanism is to assign blame.
Arriving at a conclusion regarding culpability provides psychological comfort because it creates an explanation for what happened in the minds of the public.
It is worth noting the assessment of blame by the public is not always an accurate depiction of what actually happened.
An example of the assessment of blame under uncertainty is a plane crash.
Most people fly as a means of transportation and not knowing what caused a plane crash becomes very uncomfortable for people to accept. A way the public deals with this situation is by arriving at a conclusion as to what happened.
This can put an airline in a very difficult situation. A good example is the disappearance of Malaysia Air flight MH370.
Despite not finding the plane, many people attributed the disappearance of the plane to the actions of the pilot.
The negative consequences for Malaysia Airlines have been significant, including a steep decline in revenue.
When there is a high likelihood of the public assessing blame for a crisis, it is essential for companies to understand the factors that influence the public.
One key factor is the reputation of the different companies involved in the crisis.
If one company has a stronger reputation than the other, it is less likely to be blamed for the crisis.
In the case of a plane crash, two companies are typically involved — the airline and the aircraft manufacturer. In the Malaysia Airlines case, the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 involved a Boeing 777 airplane.
Malaysia Airlines was at a serious disadvantage during the MH370 crisis because Boeing had a stronger global reputation and, as a result, the public was less likely to blame Boeing for the crisis. The Boeing 777 also had a good safety track record at the time which helped Boeing as well.
With the disappearance of the plane, it was also very difficult for Malaysia Airlines to overcome the reputation effect because of the lack of evidence to help refute the claims against the airline.
The uncertainty around the cause of a crisis is particularly damaging for a company with a weaker reputation, and Malaysia Airlines suffered as a result.
In terms of actions companies need to take during these types of crises, they first need to assess the severity of the situation.
A plane crash is a serious crisis, and the public will feel pressure to assess blame quickly.
On the other hand, Air New Zealand's flight to China would be considered relatively minor, and the public would be more willing to wait for the findings of an investigation before assigning blame.
If there is a relatively high likelihood the public will assess blame because of the severity of the crisis, a company needs to evaluate how its reputation compares to the other companies involved.
Companies with weaker reputations face a higher likelihood of being blamed, so they need to complete their investigations as quickly as possible. They should also consider hiring a reputable independent third party to conduct the investigation to enhance credibility.
In the case of Malaysia Airlines, the airline learned from the disappearance of MH370 about the negative consequences of uncertainty during a crisis.
As a result, the airline started tracking 100 per cent of its flights in real time.
If Malaysia Airlines had real-time global aircraft tracking when the plane went missing, there is a high likelihood it would have been able to locate MH370.
Understanding the psychology of blame during a crisis is very important, especially if there is uncertainty surrounding the cause.
The negative consequences of being blamed by the public can be significant, and companies need to be prepared if there is a possibility they will be a target of blame.
- Daniel Laufer, PhD, MBA is an Associate Professor of Marketing at Victoria University of Wellington, and an expert in Crisis Management. He has previously provided commentary on best practices in Crisis Management for the Wall Street Journal in the US.