By Benjamin Haslem
The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 is a tragedy.
But it is also a text book example of how a poor response to a crisis in the first few hours can set the tone for the days that follow and derail any crisis communications effort.
From the perspective of many relatives in Beijing, desperately hoping against hope that their loved ones are alive or at worst wanting to know where the downed Boeing Triple-7 has crashed, the airline has treated them appallingly.
In the first 24 hours of the crisis, some media reported Chinese relatives of passengers aboard the plane had accused the airline of failing to keep them informed.
Reuters reported that "relatives were taken to a hotel near Beijing airport, put in a room and told to wait for information from the airline, but none came".
"There's no one from the company here, we can't find a single person. They've just shut us in this room and told us to wait," one relative said.
"We want someone to show their face. They haven't even given us the passenger list," he said.
Another relative was more direct: "They're treating us worse than dogs".
Chinese media criticised the airline for taking so long to announce what was happening and for refusing to answer questions.
"Malaysia Airlines, why did you wait for five hours after losing contact with the aircraft to first announce the news, and why did you only have a news conference after almost 13 hours?" the official Xinhua news agency wrote on one of its Weibo accounts.
Three days later and from the relatives' perspective little has improved.
A statement signed by 100 relatives was released to waiting media in Beijing on Tuesday warning the airline if it did not provide clarity they would complain directly to the Malaysian Embassy in Beijing.
"We don't believe Malaysia Airlines anymore. Sorry everyone, we just don't believe them anymore," a man holding the signed statement said.
The anger remains palpable and relatives are lashing out at the airline, which observers would be excused for concluding was behaving heartlessly.
Yet the airline dispatched dozens of caregivers to Beijing and assigned one to each family, provided accommodation, food, transport and financial assistance.
It said it was providing regular updates despite a lack of information about the plane.
All text-book crisis communication actions. But all of this is drowned out by the despairing relatives looking for someone to blame for their frustration and grief.
The problem is, the first 24-hours was a PR disaster and no matter how hard the airline tries now, it is very difficult to claw back the faith of the relatives and as such correct the public perception that Malaysia Airlines was at best disorganised at worst, uncaring.
As Associated Press reported:
The relatives had expected the plane's arrival at 6:30 a.m. Saturday. About four hours later, a handwritten note was posted on a white board in the arrival hall advising relatives to use a shuttle service to go to the Lido Hotel to await information. "It can't be good," said one weeping woman aboard the first bus.
But when the family members got there, they wandered around lost and distressed before hotel staff -- apparently
unprepared -- escorted them into a private area.
It was several more hours before an airline spokesman made a brief statement to reporters, providing little information.
In the airline's defence, it did not know where the plane was. It had vanished off radar screens but that could mean its radio transponder, used to track aircraft, had been switched off or failed. There was enough fuel on board for the Boeing-777 to fly (and safely land) for several more hours.
But surely, any airline worth its salt would have practised crisis communications scenarios just like this one.
The response by Qantas to the emergency aboard its A380 Airbus, which suffered an engine explosion and failure
climbing out of Singapore in November 2010, is the gold standard in aviation crisis management, albeit rolled out under starkly different circumstances to flight MH370.
Qantas knew that if it didn't treat the plane's passengers with the utmost care then the already grave PR situation would be made far worse. The passengers, after all, would be the media's primary target back on terra firma.
When QF32 landed safely back in Singapore, passengers were debriefed personally in groups of about 100 by the ill-fated plane's captain Richard Champion de Crespigny, who explained to them what had occurred during the flight. He even provided every passenger his mobile phone number.
The PR had commenced in the air, with the captain coolly and calmly explaining the situation over the plane's intercom.
Back in Sydney, once the Airbus had landed, CEO Alan Joyce held a press conference, in which he provided media with a wealth of information.
In Singapore, each passengers was given a coloured sticker to place on their chest so they could be quickly identified and transported to awaiting buses and ferried to hotels.
When the awaiting media stuck microphones under their noses the passengers were full of praise for Qantas.
The airline demonstrated empathy and provided information about the incident immediately. All the passengers' needs were addressed. There was no white board with a scrawled message. No hotel staff unaware of why a group of distressed people had lobbed on their doorstep.
And it all happened outside the airline's home country.
I'd expect other airlines will learn from Malaysia Airlines mistakes and try to avoid a repeat PR disaster, should, heaven forbid, a similar incident occur again.