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Navigating a PR storm
Ethiopian Airlines is tackling its biggest disaster in years—a tragedy that reverberated across the world on Mar. 10 when its Nairobi-bound ET 302 flight crashed minutes after take-off, killing all 157 people on board.
In its over 70-year history, the airline has transformed itself not just into Africa’s largest airline, but a profitable symbol of pride for the almost 11-million people it hauls to five continents annually. Yet in the ensuing days of the crash, the carrier has had to defend its record, fending off allegations that it prioritized growth and profit at the expense of safety and adequate training. Its longstanding relationship with Boeing has come under scrutiny too, especially following the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max, a best-selling jet that was also involved in the October Lion Air accident that killed 189 people in Indonesia.
During times of crisis, how companies respond, address the affected parties, and whether they take a proactive or reactive approach to media coverage is very crucial. Boeing, for instance, has been criticized for being “too defensive, slow, and passive” in its feedback, with its leadership saying little if anything at all. The aircraft manufacturer currently stands accused of charging extra for safety features, rushing the certification process of the 737 Max, and trying to delay the grounding of the model after chief executive Dennis Muilenburg placed a call to president Trump.
Ethiopian has been quite the opposite, releasing 13 updates on the crash so far, while its CEO Tewolde GebreMariam grants regular interviews to the press.
Yet as investigations get underway, cracks are starting to appear in the way Ethiopian has responded to this crisis. In fact, experts say the ungainly handling of communications started from when the plane initially went down. Prime minister Abiy Ahmed’s office was the first to break the news, beating the carrier’s confirmation by more than an hour as families and reporters scurried to confirm the news. Even though it’s a state carrier, public relations experts say it would have been prudent if the announcement came from the airline first or if both entities simultaneously shared the news.
This week, the airline refuted reports its CEO had said the preliminary report of the crash will be released “maybe this week or next week.” That message was wrong given that Tewolde said that on record to reporters, including this one at a conference in Kigali, Rwanda earlier this week. The refutation comes after the carrier denied reports in both the New York Times and the Washington Post, without providing any evidence to the contrary which ultimately served as an excuse for online trolls who argued the media was acting as a foil for Boeing. A New York Times’ Ethiopian-born reporter, for instance, was attacked for being “a traitor”.
Ethiopian Airlines is a reputable, fast-growing airline that’s promised to continue its pan-African expansion plans despite dealing with its deadliest crash ever. In the crucial weeks ahead, the last thing the carrier wants is to sully that reputation.
— Abdi Latif Dahir, Quartz Nairobi correspondent
Stories from this week
The Nollywood movie experiment to research Nigerians’ anti-corruption behavior. After commissioning a feature film with a plot based on its star actors reporting corruption, researchers from Princeton University, UCLA and MIT prompted movie goers to do the same. It yielded positive results with scores of “concrete corruption” reports sent into researchers, writes Yomi Kazeem.
The devastation of Cyclone Idai. It has been more than two weeks since Cyclone Idai battered Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi. The death toll has passed 750 and hundreds of thousands have been affected. The city of Beira was worst hit, the before and after satellite images showing the scale of the damage. From above, Mozambique’s fourth largest city and its surrounding towns resemble a lake and the UN says the whole region lost over $1 billion in infrastructure. On the ground, citizens in need of desperate help have come to rely on a crowdfunding diaspora to help them rebuild.
South Africa’s electricity blackouts have become worryingly normal. Africa’s most advanced economy is threatening to regress severely as rolling blackouts keep the country in the dark, yet the public response to the collapse of the state-owned power utility has been surprisingly muted. If anything, the blackouts are a connecting thread between the country’s rich and poor who are all forced to adapt to substandard basic services, writes Lynsey Chutel.
Why a Ghanaian startup is buying Kenya’s second-largest pharmacy chain. MPharma, a six-year old inventory management and services startup from Ghana, is buying Haltons, a pharmacy chain with 20 stores in Nairobi and Mombasa. The unusual deal with a tech startup buying physical stores comes after mPharma neared completion of $12 million Series B round, reports Yinka Adegoke.
How a Nigerian genome team contained a Lassa fever outbreak with international partners. A Lassa fever outbreak in Nigeria last year could have been much worse but for proactive collaboration. As B David Zarley explains, partnership and preparation between a local genome team, a Nigerian specialist hospital and a US-based research institute ensured the samples were rapidly sequenced in Nigeria by local labs, allowing scientists respond in real time.
Why an African American Freemasons group “returned” to one of slave trade’s darkest places. The Prince Hall Masons were formed in 1784 by a free African American right after the Revolutionary War when he wasn’t accepted in the whites-only Freemasons at the time. The group has gone on to be one of the most influential black organizations in the United States and Joy Notoma in Cotonou, Benin witnessed an emotional visit by some members to meet members of their local chapter and to key slave trade locations.
Chart of the Week
The most common destination for African migrants is neither Europe nor North America. Despite the seeming popularity of migration to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea or North America via asylum programs, a new report this week showed intending African migrants are more likely to move to another country within the continent than outside of it.
Other Things We Liked
How The Gambia’s ex-dictator plundered almost $1 billion from the country. Since coming to power in 1994, Yahya Jammeh ruled the West African nation with an iron fist amassing wealth including private jets, luxury vehicles, and private estates. Over two years since Jammeh was ousted, Khadija Sharife and Mark Anderson in the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project give an in-depth insight into the strongman’s corrupt financial dealings.
Netflix’s long overdue entry to Africa is encouraging new shows. From a Zimbabwean animated musical to a Malawian story of perseverance and innovation to the colorful dramatics of Nigeria’s Nollywood, Netflix has been dipping its toes in the waters with increasing frequency. For Christian Science Monitor, Ryan Lenora Brown looks at how the process has changed how game for African producers.
World Bank Robert S. McNamara Fellowships Program 2019/20. This is a fellowship program for PhD candidates from developing countries who are studying a development topic in a World Bank country other than their own for funding of up to $25,000. (Closes May 2)
Jack Ma’s African Netpreneur Prize. Applications are now open for entrepreneurs from across Africa with on both traditional and tech-driven businesses being encouraged to apply for the chance to win a share of the $10 million prize money available from the founder of Alibaba. (Closes June 30).
Keep an eye on
Private equity industry meets in Nairobi (Apr. 2-3). Investors, bankers and finance lawyers among others will gather in Nairobi to discuss the industry’s big trends at the 16th annual AVCA event.
Political and business leaders meet in Abidjan to talk governance (Apr. 5-7). Mo Ibrahim’s Governance Weekend will convene key African leaders, civil society, multilateral and regional institutions and major international partners to debate issues of critical importance to African governance.
*This brief was produced while listening to Nakupenda by Karmator (DR Congo).
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