Experts commend MAS' comms strategy

The world is waiting in bated breath as the search for Malaysia Airlines (MAS) MH370 continues on for the fifth day.

Countries globally have rallied together to launch an extensive search for the airline, which first went missing on Saturday. The MAS carrier, carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew members, lost contact with Subang Air Traffic Control and is still currently missing.

The crisis has been a trying time for both the families of the missing passengers, as well as MAS. The airline has undoubtedly come under intense criticism and scrutiny from all major global media outlets as the hunt continues. According to The Wall Street Journal,  Malaysian Airline’s shares have also taken a hit, dropping by 20%, as reported this week.

The latest development had news of its pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid, said to be first officer on board missing flight MH370, previously having two young ladies in 2011 to sit in the cockpit with the crew. Passengers are by law banned from entering the cockpit.

But despite all the chaos, PR experts are lauding Malaysian Airlines for its professional crisis management strategy.

(Read also: A crisis of communication: When PR and legal clash)

Swift and sensitive communications

Currently, the Malaysian Airline has blacked out its website, hiding all its promotional material, utilising what PR folks commonly call a dark site. Its Facebook and Twitter pages are also donning a similar look and has been constantly updated with news on the missing flight.

Jamie Morse, managing director, Hill+Knowlton Strategies Singapore, said all the steps taken by MAS so far have been classic textbook moves on to how to handle a crisis situation.

"Its public response was rapid, it utilised dark site and social media to ensure frequent messaging reached stakeholders and the public, and the company has managed outside speculation with professionalism and compassion for the families of those on board,” Morse said.

He compared the incident to that of Asiana Airlines which had a crash landing in July last year and saw two people lose their lives and left hundreds injured. During that incident, because Asiana was slow to communicate with the press, multiple stakeholders and the San Francisco Airport, Boeing, the aviation and emergency services all ended up providing the public with information. As a result, there was a wealth of information flowing to media and the public but none officially from the airline.

The incident with Flight MH370 is the opposite, said Morse. Malaysian Airlines has stepped up to lead with all communication, though in this instance, actual information is scarce.

This makes the company come across as transparent, cooperative and determined to get to the bottom of the incident, he adds.

Lars Voedisch, principal consultant and managing director of Precious Communications also commended the airline on its coordinated communications strategy to curb speculation.

“We have to keep in mind that even if you prepare and train for such incidents, you never want it to become reality. It is different when it actually happens,” Voedisch said.

Girls in the cockpit: addressing speculation

What MAS has had to deal with is challenging.

Theories proliferate on what really took place, and should MAS take longer to provide answers to the tragedy, the wilder these will become, said Voedisch.

MAS has also responded to allegations on pilot Hamid inviting ladies into the cockpit, acknowledging the accusations but refusing to address it at this point.

"We have not been able to confirm the validity of the pictures and videos of the alleged incident. As you are aware, we are in the midst of a crisis, and we do not want our attention to be diverted," said MAS in a statement on its website, adding that the welfare of both the crew and passenger’s families remains its focus.

Both Morse and Voedisch commended MAS’ move to stick to its focus on the bigger incident.

Morse also added that it is too early to link the emergence of the pictures with the bigger crisis of the missing plane.

"The photos of officer Fariq Ab Hamid and passengers in the cockpit should be treated as a separate incident. MAS is doing the right thing by concentrating attention on the bigger incident. It’s too early to be drawing any conclusions about pilot behavior and the fate of the plane," he said.