For Malaysia Airlines, it doesn’t get much worse. Searchers are still combing the floor of the Indian Ocean for flight MH370, presumably crashed back in March, and now another airliner has gone down, this time in the eastern Ukraine, possibly brought down by a missile fired by one side or other in a civil conflict. 295 passengers and crew were on board.
Acts of terrorism and acts of war are beyond the control of any airline. But, as in the previous case, the airline does have a responsibility to the passengers on the plane and their families (and of course their own employees too).
But just because the disaster may not be the airline’s fault doesn’t mean it can wash its hands of the affair. After the loss of MH370, Malaysia Airlines was roundly criticised for failing to do enough to communicate with the passengers of families. Another failure could do still more damage and really make the airline look as if it does not care. That is the kind of thing that ultimately sinks companies.
There are proven recipes for dealing with this kind of disaster, no matter whose fault it is.
Crisis management experts talk about the “golden hour” after a disaster. If a company can get a crisis management team in place, start talking to the people concerned and coordinate a response inside an hour, or at least very close to it, then there is a good chance of salvaging something. Bereaved relatives will realise the company really is concerned and cares about them, and is not simply handing them off to their insurance companies.
The chairman or CEO should be the visible face of the company during a crisis. He or she should take the important press conferences but should also be visible to the bereaved relatives. Top executive commitment is more likely to engender trust. Sending around the regional operations manager: not so much.
Press conferences are important, and the public face a company puts on a crisis will affect its reputation. But relatives don’t always want to air their grief in public. Private conversations directly with relatives, in locked rooms with no press, will allow the company to build relationships with grieving people and find out what they want and what they need. And send staff out to talk to people directly; never, ever, communicate messages of condolence by e-mail or text.
Regular conversations are necessary. Keep people posted as to what is going on.
Tell people what you know. If you don’t know anything, say so, and give them a timetable as to when you can provide further information, then move heaven and earth to stick to that timetable.
Many people reading this will no doubt ask, why? Why do all this if there’s a chance the disaster is not your fault? Why not let the “proper” authorities take care of it? Well, for one thing, in eastern Ukraine right now there are no proper authorities. But even so, sure, companies can sit back and disclaim responsibility and let passengers’ families sort themselves out. But that would be wrong, and it would be a disaster for the company, as well as any individuals involved.