Dark days: How Malaysia Airlines managed an ‘unprecedented’ crisis in a digital world

As the scale of the crisis surrounding the missing aircraft hit home, Malaysia Airlines had two choices: to go out of business or find a way to keep moving. Pamela Whitby reports

Within two hours of news breaking that Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 had disappeared, every single commercial communication, across every channel, in all the airline’s global markets had been suspended and the company’s website placed into a status known as ‘dark side’.

“In this environment we completely stripped all references to commercial activities and only provided information and updates with respect to the incident,” says Dean Dacko, Senior Vice President of Marketing for Malaysia Airlines (MAS). 

This was done, he says, to show sensitivity and respect to the individuals directly involved, and to demonstrate that the airline was entirely focused on resolving the MH370 event.

It was at last week’s Travel Distribution Summit, Europe that Dacko spoke for the first time about how the airline had managed an “unprecedented” communications crisis in very challenging circumstances.  

At the core of Dacko's emotionally charged presentation, in a hall marked by pin-drop silence, was an explanation of how the team worked round the clock to manage, solve, and provide compassionate support to the friends and relataives of both passengers and crew while still operating a global airline carrying 47,000 passengers around the world.

It did this in an environment where the airline and Malaysian authorities faced intense and ongoing criticism for the handling of what has been described as the biggest riddle in aviation history. 

“I’m sure you can appreciate that the intense global scrutiny we were under could freeze anyone,” he told around 450 industry peers in London.

I’m sure you can appreciate that the intense global scrutiny we were under could freeze anyone Dean Dacko, Senior Vice President of Marketing for Malaysian Airlines (MAS)

As all airlines will know, any incident that involves loss of life is the most devastating thing that can happen. And like all airlines Malaysia Airlines had a process and a protocol for disaster management, practiced every quarter. Within ten days this was labelled ‘completely redundant’.

Team effort

For members of the family and friends of the 239 people aboard MH370, it must be inconceivable that less than four months after the aircraft disappeared without trace, the airline could be talking about how it went about getting back to business.

But as the reality of the catastrophe hit home, Dacko says they were faced with two choices: to go out of business or to keep flying. 

“We couldn’t miss a beat for the sake of our customers, for the sake of our staff, who had to keep working even though many were grieving too, for the sake of Malaysian citizens and the country which has taken a real hit,” he says.

In order to do this, Malaysia Airlines had to separate its commercial activities from those related to the event.

From a commercial perspective, every day an airline remains grounded represents millions of dollars in lost sales, and has an impact on the livelihood of employees. At the time of the event, MAS, which has direct or indirect operations in all global markets, was carrying 47,000 passengers a day.

“There was a huge responsibility to keep the national carrier moving, and its integrity in tact,” says Dacko.

This was a highly complex situation to manage and involved support from a large team of experts and trade partners including Google, social media agency Rally, a division of IPG media, a PR arm of O&M, which helped shape and execute the airline’s business continuity plan, and brand management organisation, Millward Brown. 

“Not a single cancellation fee came out of this,” Dacko says.

A 'humbling experience'

Within four days, a 40-strong marketing team – including external and internal resources – had put in place a strategy for managing the crisis.

According to Dacko, Google, as MAS’s most significant and strategic partner “shared a tonne of data”, particularly in helping to understand what people were searching for. In time, this enabled the airline to target specific audiences that were interested in commercial information, rather than information about the event.  

Although Google said that it is too early to comment, EyeforTravel heard insights from Rally, which helped MAS’s internal social media team to manage, monitor and measure brand sentiment from the almost 58 million interactions that happened within two months.

“We had practiced for every eventuality, but nothing can truly prepare anyone for what they will face when the time comes. Certainly we had to learn as we went through the paces from day one,” says Moheeta Tamrakar Global Coordinator, Social Media at Rally, adding that the team effort was “a humbling experience for all involved.” 

We had practiced for every eventuality, but nothing can truly prepare anyone for what they will face when the time comes  

Moheeta Tamrakar Global Coordinator, Social Media, Rally 

As Tamrakar explains, most of the conversations were negative and demanded answers that were simply not available at the time.

One of the biggest challenges was managing the highly charged and hostile environment in China, where some of the team was physically assaulted. Here MAS set up a dedicated, separate entity and measured everything that was being talked about across all social media channels.

“Language variations, and culture, plus the size of the audience, made it very difficult,” says Dacko.

Sensitive legal issues were also at stake, which required that every response on every channel be vetted first by a dedicated team of lawyers. This approach attracted its own criticism from commentators who raised questions of a cover up.

In the first week after the event, the only communication was delivered via the company’s website, but by the middle of week two, the airline began to publish direct responses to posted messages. Given the volume of interactions, Dacko says its first and foremost priority was to manage communication with the people most directly affected - the families of passengers and crew on board.

What helped was having a social media filtering system in place prior to the disaster which allowed MAS to segment all comments into different buckets based on language, behaviour, culture and so on.

“Because there were so much information passing around - the biggest challenge was to identify and act on what was important,” explains Mohd Hisham Saleh, Head of Social Media & Innovations, Malaysia Airlines.

Updates were delivered every 30 minutes across 16 markets, and recommendations made to the emergency control centre and communications team, so that they could craft appropriate responses.

Specific steps, stats and lessons 

While managing a crisis of this scale in a digital world presents its own unique challenges, Dacko says one advantage was that it enabled the team to act in a targeted, personal and human way.

“If we posted something that got a massive reaction we could pull back. We could measure interactions in many different languages in every one of our markets and we did so virtually every half hour,” he says.

It also allowed the team to be completely flexible – to measure, monitor and adjust the brand messages in all 16 different country sites.

 “I don’t know whether we would have been able to move as rapidly, or as accurately, without having that kind of intelligence or understanding that the digital world afforded,” he says. 

Some of the key steps and events

  • Within two hours, every communication across every channel in every market suspended and the website assigned status ‘dark side’
  • For one week, all communications are delivered via the company website alone
  • Communications with people directly affected are prioritised
  • Within seven hours senior members of staff fly to Beijing to face the grieving families of Chinese nationals
  • A standard message of condolence is published in every major newspaper worldwide and on the company’s Google+ page
  • Sales fall to zero
  • By day four, a strategy in place to manage the evolving communications crisis
  • On day 10, the existing disaster operations manual is labelled “completely redundant” and thrown out
  • 2 months: just under 58 million social interactions with the airline logged
  • 30 minutes: time taken to respond to social media interactions across platforms in 16 different markets
  • A dedicated team of lawyers mobilised to vet every published word across all channels
  • A microsite established purely focused on the disaster, so that the airline can separate commercial activity from the management of the crisis
  • A/B testing conducted to determine receptiveness to the brand and to ensure appropriate content was in place before the reinstatement of the commercial aspect of the website
  • May 20 sees $11million in sales from direct channels up from zero in early March

Moving forward 

Getting back to business as usual is going to be a long and arduous process, and the airline’s first quarter results point to tough times ahead.

But for Dacko, it’s not just about getting back to business, it’s about continuing to do business and to do it better.

On June 22, the airline will launch a new website and the process of optimising its digital strategy – which has played such a significant part in managing the crisis - continues. Steps underway include continued website optimisation, and the creation of a whole new enterprise CRM strategy that will link back to social CRM and all the way through the customer journey. By year-end MAS will have dedicated social media sites in 22 markets, up from 16 today.

So, is there anything at all the airline could have done differently?

“In general, our recovery plan delivered on all of our objectives over time and we’d probably move faster and with more confidence if the circumstances ever were repeated again,” says Dacko.

He does, however, acknowledge that they could have engaged more directly with global news agencies.

“This would have helped to ensure that the MAS voice was heard more clearly and with more volume while the noise of the crisis was at it loudest,” he says.

On a final note Dacko has this to say: "We will never forget MH370, or the impact it had on the families of our customers and crew, but it's important to realise that it is time for us all to move ahead." 

According to reports this week, raw satellite data was released this week by the Malaysian authorities, and a separate report issued by Australian accident investigators, offer fresh support for the theory that the missing flight went down in a remote section of the Indian Ocean.

This news highlights that story remains ongoing, as does the work of Malaysia Airlines marketing and communications operation. For the families of passengers and crew of MH370, there is still little consolation. 

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