Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Mis-Communicator of the Week: Malaysia Airlines

Travelling home after pleasant summer drinks in central London I tapped on my iPhone to catch up with the latest news. I did a double take that would have been comedic if the news glowing out of the handset wasn’t quite so grim. Another Malaysia Airlines plane has crashed was my first thought - with emphasis on ‘another’. Then, as I read the story in full, the accounts pieced together the story, which has become clearer each day since, that this civilian airliner had been shot down. 

I don’t intend to go into the political whys and wherefores of how this situation arose but instead centre our attention on Malaysia Airlines, my reaction to the dreadful news and the airline’s subsequent response. While my first reaction was that another plane had crashed the circumstances soon became clear in the way they never have with the Malaysia Airlines flight still missing somewhere in the southern Indian Ocean. 

In March I wrote for PR Moment about the crisis response to this tragedy and there is little doubt that this incident has damaged Malaysia Airlines' brand. The response from superstitious Chinese tourists to this latest disaster was a vow never to fly with such a ‘cursed’ airline again. This piled the pressure on further for a business which has seen passenger numbers down hugely since the disappearance of flight MH370 in March. There is speculation of bankruptcy or a government bail out after losing £150 million in the first quarter of 2014. There is no doubt they are a business in dire trouble but until March Malaysia was seen as one of the best Asian carriers in a booming market. 

This is the context then for Malaysia’s announcement to refund any booking on any flight stating,  "In light of the MH17 incident, Malaysia Airlines will be waiving any change fees for passengers who wish to make changes to their itinerary to any MH destinations. Passengers who wish to postpone or cancel their travel plans can obtain a refund, including for non refundable tickets.” 

This is an awful decision, a terrible statement and may be final undermining of the Malaysia Airlines brand. In a crisis there is pressure to act, or to be seen to have acted, and do it fast. Good crisis comms experts follow the old adage that ‘speed kills’ and it does…unless you’re acting fast on a wrong decision. Offering refunds on tickets communicates from Malaysia Airlines that they too have lost faith in their business. The language used is negative and repeats the call sign of the doomed airplane while failing to say anything positive about the company. 'If the airline themselves has given up why should anyone else remain loyal?' is what this statement says to me, which is why Malaysia Airlines is my Mis-Communicator of the Week.   

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