Sixteen days after the mysterious disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines airplane, the tragic confirmation of what was feared arrived through a short message. The SMS contained this short message: “Malaysian Airlines is deeply concerned to communicate that we assume, beyond any reasonable doubt, that H370 plane was lost and no one on board survived. As you will hear in the next hours from Malaysian Prime Minister, we must accept that all proofs hint at the fact that the plane fell in the Southern Indian Ocean”. Sender: the airline company. Recipient: relatives of the victims of H370 flight.

In terms of communication and repercussion on the airline company the thing is: was the SMS the correct way to communicate the result of the event? For a major company such as Malaysian Airlines implied in a serious accident, the identification with requests of public opinion and most of the passengers’ relatives is mandatory. In this way the company builds up and strengthens its social image. The world public opinion is the spokesperson of big companies and with it they must measure themselves. Media play a crucial role in sometimes making things difficult or stimulating the change in businesses, contributing to shaping people’s opinions, (also) influenced by fake news artificially made up or inserted in the diffusion of information. A very well known example: what do avian flu, swine flu, anthrax, mad cow disease and Sars have in common? When the first case of avian flu exploded, the reactions were catastrophic: “No one is ready to face such a difficult epidemic”. In the end, H5N1 made some victims, mainly birds (which is even correct, given the name of the disease), a black swan in London in March 2006, and a cat in Germany. In the meanwhile, Roche was asked to produce 360 millions of the now-famous Tamiflu, the only vaccine that should defeat the epidemic. The same happened with swine flu, anthrax, mad cow disease, and Sars. Result: the figures do not even reach the statistics, but the fear has increased a lot and the reputation of big brands is put into question.

The index of Reputation Institute – that evaluates the reputation of big companies every year – is built on criteria such as trust, admiration, respect, and esteem, besides values such as innovation, business management, and quality of performances. Do you remember the case of Crash Air France 447? On June 1 2009 it cost life to 3 pilots, 9 workers, and 216 passengers on the route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris. It took years to the Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses pour la sécuritée de l’aviation civile to give answers regarding the causes of the accident. At least, in that case we knew what happened. Before this accident, Air France had an excellent reputation for crisis management, and in fact it sold its consultancy on the correct behavior to adopt in extreme cases to other companies.

In a crisis situation, the factors that need to be considered are dozens and without a well-defined and perfectly working organization it is impossible to act effectively. It is not advisable to act impulsively under the emotional pressure of dead or missing passengers, or relatives that knock at your door asking for information. The first thing to do is understanding what happened and, at the same time, helping the victims and their families, recurring to everything possible or necessary in order to solve the case in its different aspects, factual and regulatory. The impact of a crisis must be limited at the maximum, at least in terms of communication; otherwise, the company’s life itself is in danger.
In the case of flight disasters not only the airline company speaks. Authorities and people looking for fame, such as experts, or lawyers looking for a lucrative class action, step in. The public tends to believe in who has the best reputation. In such cases the disclosure of “real facts” is the proper strategy in terms of reputation and, of course, in helping the relatives and friends of the victims who need to be informed. In the recent case of Malaysian Airlines, facts were clear: the airplane was lost and no one knew why.

Most crises go through three phases: emotions, controversies, and causes. The challenge consists of containing the debate. The controversy is faced by cutting off speculations. In order to overcome it, and when there is no chance to blame someone for the events (for example suppliers, foreign authorities or dishonest employees) the only possibility left is to immediately acknowledge the accident without trying to diminish the events or to demonstrate that everything was done in order to face the situation. In fact, public opinion accepts that a company with an excellent reputation can commit a mistake.

When in 2004 the sadly known Tsunami took place, Hotelplan reacted with extraordinary efficiency. A shuttle bus was organized in order to transfer tourists from Khao Lak to Bangkok. The customers were contacted one by one; the agent of Hotelplan Walkers Tours took care of the tourists’ return. Two press releases were sent out. In the same way, the customers of Hotelplan Swiss went back home from the Maldives in a very short time. Almost ten years ago, Hotelplan decided to contact all customers in person, by phone of course. Last week Malaysian Airlines decided to contact all relatives by SMS.

By now, texting is the most popular form of communication. Actually, the concept of written text has been overtaken by a visual form of communication made of emoticons: a crying face means that a “tragedy” is taking place! Portable devices have disrupted the rules of human communication made of gestures, hugs, and real socialization. Nowadays, one SMS is enough to express your love to a person.
The era of computer and social networks has marked a turning point in everyone’s life and we cannot be shocked if an SMS was used to transmit tragic news. SMS are nowadays the most private, intimate communications medium.
Is this a disenchanted, harsh, unacceptable conclusion? Maybe yes, today that we observe the first case of worldwide communication of a solved crisis (by now), with a simple, yet effective SMS.

Read the published version in Italian here