Exchange: What lessons can communicators learn from Malaysia flight MH370?

Our latest Exchange panel debate looked at crisis management on a global scale.

In the immediate aftermath of Malaysia flight MH370 Inmarsat went from 30 incoming press calls a week, to 1,800 a day. This morning's Exchange looked at how to handle crisis communications on a global scale and the lessons communicators can learn from flight MH370.

Our panel of senior communicators included; Chris McLaughlin, Senior Vice President External Affairs and Marketing Commincations, Inmarsat, Gavin Megaw, Director, Hanover, John Mahony, Group CEO, ReputationInc, Rod Clayton, Executive Vice President and Co-lead, Global issues and Crisis, Weber Shandwick and Christian Wolmar, award-winning writer and broadcaster, specialising in transport. The debate was chaired by Helen Dunne, Editor, CorpComms Magazine.

The discussion opened with missing flight MH370 being described as "not a normal crisis situation" in that there were simply no answers or information to give. So how can you prepare for unprecedented events? One panel member advised that with crisis communications you should; "Always imagine the unimaginable". It's often not the incident itself but how you deal with it that gets judged so be prepared to deal with anything, however unpredictable.

Chris McLaughlin, Inmarsat's global spokesperson during the search, described how Inmarsat responded; "All we could do was tell the truth and say we don't know but we're doing our best". In response to the resulting global media frenzy surrounding the missing flight he said, "We didn't comment on speculation but decided that we wouldn't be silent to the point of damaging Inmarsat's corporate reputation". He also pointed to the challenge faced of respecting different cultures when dealing with the international media.

The panel empathetically agreed that when handling a crisis it's sometimes a mistake in PR to be too careful; "Share what you do know and don't speculate over what you don't". There's also a requirement for authentic, open and human leadership; "If lawyers take control you lose humanity. You want your spokespeople to sound human", said one panellist. Identify the right spokesperson, who may not always be the CEO, and make sure they are trained to express emotion and regret, not purely focused on damage control; "Regret isn't an admission of fault it's an expression of empathy, this has to be put across" advised one panel member.

There were a number of questions from the floor, one of which asked how to best to handle crises internally. The importance of keeping staff in the loop with daily updates was noted;"Your own people are the biggest protectors of your reputation" said one panelist, who also advised against commenting on any speculation and only sharing the facts.

The debate closed with attention turning to the role of social media in crisis communications - does it make it harder? It was agreed that 24/7 resources on social media and a pre-planned tone of voice during a crisis are vital. One panel member said that on the whole though social media hasn't changed the game of crisis communications, the same rules apply, it's just faster.

You can read extended coverage of the discussion in the next edition of CorpComms Magazine.

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Claire Melly
Head of Marketing, UK & Ireland

Call me +44 (0)20 3130 7424