Flight MH370

Malaysia Airlines flight 370

MH370 communications disaster lays bare Malaysia's incompetence

Zarina Banu says Malaysia's bungled handling of the MH370 tragedy is a powerful lesson in how not to communicate to the world in a crisis

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 March, 2014, 11:59am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 March, 2014, 1:31am

Malaysia's handling of the MH370 tragedy has doled out a brutal lesson to the leadership in crisis communications. The bungling of information about the plane's trajectory, particularly during the vital early days of its disappearance, has forced the Malaysian government to rethink how it handles itself in front of a world audience.

Yet despite the criticism and valuable lessons on offer, the government is still making many unforced errors. Right from the start, during the so-called "golden hours" - the first moments in crisis communication - the leadership tripped up.

First, it failed to prioritise the concerns of the mostly Chinese families. This oversight has been a considerable factor in the unrelenting criticism by the Chinese of the Malaysian government. Banning grief-stricken mothers and spouses from talking to the Malaysian media and manhandling them out of the press briefing room was not only a violation of free speech, but a major communications misstep.

Officials failed to understand the difference between the global media and the Malaysian press - the former demands transparency and answers; the latter is more compliant and forgiving.

Second, the government failed to verify and corroborate the facts. The confusion over when the satellite data link was disabled, for example, sparked frenzied speculation on TV news and wild conspiracy theories on social media.

Third, there was no co-ordinated or unified response from the government. Police chief Khalid Abu Bakar contradicted acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein over when and whether the officers had visited the pilots' homes. It was a crucial question that made senior Malaysian leaders look inept at best, and deceptive at worst.

Moreover, why did it take Prime Minister Najib Razak eight days to appear in front of the world's media? He chose instead to pose for a photo-op with a cut-price chicken two days after the plane vanished.

This "golden period" in crisis management is crucial in shaping the public's perception of how a situation is being handled. Governments and corporations have to work out their guiding-light strategy; in other words, once the dust settles, what impression do they want to leave about their management of the emergency?

Since the start, the mantra of Hishammuddin, the suave public face of the story, has been that this unfortunate turn of events was unprecedented in its scale and complexity. It's clear the Malaysian government must rethink its crisis communications plan, including a reassessment of how it handles social media. This is easier said than done. Malaysia is a deeply hierarchical culture, with a ruling coalition that has been in power since 1957. The senior leadership is used to the entire country being subservient to its needs and has co-opted various stakeholders - the media, for one - through fear and compulsion into its national development plan.

When the heat is finally turned off this catastrophe, how will the world judge the Malaysian government's approach - cohesive and decisive, or chaotic and careless? More likely the latter, which can only bring potentially long-lasting damage to Malaysia, its government and airlines.

Zarina Banu is a freelance writer, focusing on economics and business policy in the Asia-Pacific