Stakeholder Management and the Mushroom Treatment
When Tragedy Struck Flight QZ8501
Tragedy struck Air Asia’s Indonesian flight QZ8501 on 28 December 2014. The aircraft operating the international flight route from Indonesia to Singapore was just over 40 minutes into its flight when it lost contact with air traffic controllers. The aircraft then stalled and crashed into the Java Sea, killing all 155 passengers and seven crew on board. The majority of the passengers on board were Indonesian citizens. Human remains and debris from the aircraft were found floating in the Java Sea by fishermen.
Open Communication Channels
Now, it pays to note that Flight QZ8501 was operated by Air Asia’s Indonesian affiliate. Yet, following the information of the crash, the first thing Tony Fernandes, Air Asia Group CEO swung into action. He promptly .took to twitter for updates on the plane. He tweeted via Air Asia’s own twitter account about the fatal incident and assured the world, and especially families of victims, of a statement soon, barely an hour after the event. The tweet read “We will be putting out another statement soon. Thank you all for your thoughts and prayers, we must stay strong”.
Three hours after his first tweet, Tony was on a flight to Surabaya with a clear intention of meeting the families of the passengers and crew. A tweet announced his mission: It read “On my way to Surabaya where most of the passengers are from, with my Indonesian management. Providing information as we get it. We must stay strong.” The tweet announced to the world that the organisation had taken charge of the situation.
Social media was soon swamped by an outpouring of positive messages relayed on social media by people who responded to the incident and to Tony’s actions. He responded to these messages promptly. Constant updates followed on Twitter, constant which helped diffuse unwarranted rumours from emerging. The live stream of reassuring tweets by Air Asia and Tony Fernandes in the midst of news reports and official media statements provided a sense of support and empathy to all those who watched the crisis unfold. Air Asia reproduced its media statements for its Facebook page. In expression of their grief, they changed all their social media logos from bright red to monochrome grey.
Accepting responsibility is empowering
Note, again, that tragedy had struck the airline’s Indonesian affiliate. It would have been tempting to pin the blame on them. In the case of Flight QZ8501, he could have easily washed his hands off the issue and blame his Indonesian partners since they were majority shareholders, or put the blame on the weather. Instead he stepped up and assumed full responsibility. He refused to play the “blame game”.
He made himself available to the media and became the point of convergence for all post-incident operations and communication. His actions and words were focused on ensuring and communicating total support and concern towards those directly affected by this fatality. An active Twitter user with close to a million followers, Fernandes quickly apologized for the loss of life, while expressing shock and sympathy. His tweet read “I apologize profusely for what they are going through. I am the leader of this company and I have to take responsibility. That is why I am here. I am not running away from my obligations”.
Again, he tweeted, “Keeping positive and staying strong. My heart bleeds for all the relatives of my crew and our passengers. Nothing is more important to us.” In another tweet he said, “The warmth and support from the people of Indonesia has been incredible. Everywhere I go. Nothing but pure support.” These messages were very personal and genuinely touching, adding a human element to Air Asia’s whole communication strategy.
Lines of communication kept open
Air Asia maintained an unbroken line of communication on social media with all concerned. The airline and its Indonesian unit regularly issued statements – in several languages – posting the nationalities of the passengers online and setting up a briefing room for the families of the passengers. A hotline for relatives was set up as well. Every statement Tony Fernandes made and every interview he gave communicated a human touch. He was authentic, sincere and credible. It was evident that his priority was looking after the families of those affected. With Fernandes at the helm, Air Asia managed the aftermath of the tragedy with grace, sensitivity and – even given the tragic nature of the event – with elan.
The airline’s nadir also – with all due respects to the unimaginable horror that befell its patrons – became its finest hour.
The same year, a similar crisis had befallen another regional player, Malaysia Airlines.
At 01:19:30 hours on 8th March 2014, Captain Shah, pilot of Malaysia Airlines flight MH 370, with 12 crew members and 227 passengers flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, acknowledged a send-off by Lumpur Radar to Ho Chi Minh ACC.
It was the last verbal contact the pilot would make.
At 07:24 MYT, one hour after the scheduled arrival time of the flight at Beijing, the Airline authorities made an announcement that contact with the airline had been lost and that a search-and-rescue operation had been initiated.
In contrast to Air Asia
In comparison to Air Asia’s crisis communication, Malaysia Airlines’ communication strategy, in the aftermath of the tragedy, was questionable. In the initial hours following the disaster, the airline maintained a veil of secrecy and people were kept in the dark.
The airline’s response betrayed – or at least projected – a lack of urgency or transparency in releasing information and coordination on where to search, according to media outlets[ii]. Commentators noticed a pronounced reluctance from on the part of the airline to even admit there was a problem. They also noted a lapse in taking appropriate steps to deal with the crisis for a couple of hours after the tragedy had unfolded, due to the lack of resources and capability to resolve the problem.
The airline’s initial response to the disappearance on 8 March consisted of a first statement at 7.24am, around five hours after the loss of contact with the plane.
Social Media Disaster
To be fair to the airline, it did respond to the tragedy. Only, it’s communication strategy was poor and failed to convey empathy, accuracy and urgency (or the three Rs of crisis communication – Regret, Reason and Remedy), traits vital in crisis communication.
For example, the airline released imprecise, incomplete, and sometimes inaccurate information, with civilian officials sometimes contradicting military leaders.
So, despite its response, the airline attracted widespread criticism from the media. China’s state press agency Xinhua slammed the Malaysian government for lack of transparency, saying: “It is known to all that inaccurate, or at least incomplete, information led the initial search in the South China Sea nowhere and thus that precious time was wasted.”
The airline also came under fire from families of those on board Flight 370 and foreign governments. Vietnam who were part of the search operations, expressed concern about poor early coordination efforts and said Malaysian officials weren’t responsive to request for information. China, which had 154 nationals on board, noted the lack of progress in the search and called for greater transparency. Some family members accused the government of a cover-up when it announced the plane was lost in the Indian Ocean with no survivors.
The fallout of the tragedy, and the poor perception of the airline’s response to the same had a negative impact on the airline’s image and coffers. In an interview held on July 3, a month after the disaster unfolded, Malaysia Airlines’ chief executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya acknowledged in an interview to the Wall Street Journal that ticket sales had declined and that he was not sure when the airline could start repairing its image.