Managing the Flow of Information in an Aviation Crisis

    Managing informationAs a business, we have been asked a few times to speculate about the loss of Flight MH370 but we made the decision to steer clear of making comments since, given the lack of any reliable data, any speculation would be irresponsible and could do real harm to families and reputations.

    Much of the criticism of the Malaysian government and Malaysian Airlines in regard to MH370 is of poor media coordination and the premature release of information. Probably a more correct statement would be that there was a lack of discipline. At one point, the Police Chief contradicted the Transport Minister, which was then followed by information provided by the Air Force that seemed a surprise to others within the government. This lack of a coordinated voice and information flow allowed the media to fill the space with speculation, supported by ‘talking heads’. Much of the speculation may well have caused distress to families of the passengers and crew, and indeed some of the commentary alleging deliberate actions taken by crew to cause the disappearance is particularly damaging to their families.

    Unless I have missed something, does anyone have a shred of evidence that the Captain or First Officer of MH370 caused the loss of the aircraft?

    To be clear, this article is not about the loss of MH370, although it is inspired by the events subsequent to the loss of that aircraft. Nor is this article about media control, since it is foolish for anybody to believe that they can control western media. It is, however, about having some control over the message. It is about handling information flow in a crisis and is relevant to any crisis, not just an aviation incident.

    My experience is mostly with Qantas, which is very disciplined during crises. This includes delivering information that is not confusing or contradictory and consequently minimising any damage to the brand. Recent examples include: the QF1 runway overrun at Don Mueang International Airport as the aircraft was arriving in Bangkok on 23 September 1999; the QF30 oxygen bottle explosion on 25 July 2008 and the QF32 engine damage to an A380 on 4 November 2010.

    The cornerstone to Qantas’s success is the ability of the company to speak with a single voice during any crisis.

    Unfortunately, the Malaysian authorities were not dealt a clean or simple situation. You do not lose a Boeing 777 without a known cause and not draw speculation. So it is likely that this incident was always going to attract the conspiracy theorists.

    My issue with the lack of information discipline so early in the process is that the poor information flow and lack of coordination between departments exacerbated the problem. I will admit that I have never been involved in any emergency where there was perfect coordination from the outset but the trick is to make it seem that there is!

    One of my favourite TV shows is The West Wing. While it is fiction, I thought that one episode was relevant to this discussion: there is a nuclear accident and the press secretary, Will Bailey, is tasked with briefing the media. Before he does, he gathers his counterparts from other relevant government agencies and says to them:

    “We won’t be withholding anything. We’re trying to maintain calm; make it look like we know what we’re doing, so there will be one voice: the dulcet tones of Will Bailey.”

    The first 25 words of the quote succinctly capture the essentials of information management in a crisis.

    Later, one of Bailey’s counterparts leaks some information and Bailey pulls the counterpart aside to tell him that he will be transferred. When the character objects for being punished for “telling the truth”, Bailey says that he is being transferred:

    “For telling people something which can only cause further panic. It doesn’t matter if it’s true. It doesn’t matter if I’ve already said it. We’re trying to prevent mass hysteria in a climate in which even the truth can be misinterpreted, so we speak with one voice. You’re lucky you still have a job.”

    In this instance Bailey demonstrates another of the important aspect of management: to act decisively.

    I really do not like the term “media management” since it carries with it the idea that you have some ability to manage the media. I prefer the phrase “information flow” since it conveys the idea of movement and that you are conduit of the facts.

    How do you handle information flow in a crisis?

    The first step should happen well before any incident. Any large organisation should have a media team in place. Importantly, it needs to be the right team, with skills in media relations during a crisis.

    Once you have established the media team you must exercise them. Many organisations have crisis plans and undertake regular exercises. Some will include media releases in those exercises but I wonder how many of those exercises include a hostile or overly inquisitive media?

    The next step is difficult to build into a process but when a crisis happens, pause, do not panic! It sounds trite but organisations, like people, can panic and rush around like chooks with their heads cut off. In any emergency, both people and organisations should pause and take a deep clearing breathe.

    You then need to identify the key information the organisation needs to convey and the order in which it should be released. That does not mean that you lie to the media, the worst thing that can be done is to lie to the media or cover-up salient facts. Controlling the flow means that you can control the order in which information is released. To a large extent the order of release will depend on the audience.

    Information and the audience are inextricably entwined, it may be that a fact is interesting but it may not be interesting to your audience.

    One of the issues with MH370 was that the authorities forgot the audience. They were used to a domestic audience and a rather tame media, they forgot that a large proportion of the passengers were from China and that the complete loss of a B777 is global news. Consequently, they were dealing with a different and not so tame audience.

    As well as establishing the key information, you must establish expectations, both your audience’s and the organisation’s. You are not in the business of pleasing everybody and you are not in the business of having all of the answers. You need to develop a hierarchy of audience needs and then prioritise those needs.

    You will need to review that hierarchy regularly as it is inevitable that the longer the incident, the greater the uncertainty and the greater the speculation. Consequently, priorities may change during the crisis as uncertainty and speculation increases.

    It is also vital that your media team is well prepared and to be prepared the media team must be aware of as many facts as possible. The most obvious reason is that nothing looks more incompetent than the media knowing more than the organisation’s spokesperson. As an aside, if the spokesperson is ‘caught’ unawares, the phrase “no comment” is probably the worst thing to say; it smacks of a cover-up. It is always better to take a question on notice and get back with the answer.

    The other reason for a well-informed media team is that they can see where the media is focussing and use that to suggest ways to manage the flow of information.

    You are not there to control the media, your job is to manage the information flow. In some crises that may be releasing all of the information as it becomes available but in others you may need to look at the consequences of the release of information.

    In today’s world, the other complicating issue is social media. It is as important as it is dangerous. I would suggest the basics for information flow to social media are similar but identifying the audience is much more important. Many on social media are normal thinking people but there are always those ‘special’ people. The ‘special’ people are not usually the audience of any serious organisation and chasing them is counterproductive. I would also suggest that part of the media team’s preparation both before and during any crisis is to monitor social media.

    So in conclusion, what were the errors of the Malaysian authorities? Basically everything. Not so much in the later or current stages of the incident, since it has taken a life of its own, but certainly in the beginning.

    What are the consequences of this mishandling? There are two pilots whose reputations have been trashed on little or no evidence. There are relatives of passengers and crew who feel that they cannot trust any information from the authorities and in the absence of reliable information will fill in the gaps.

    Steve Lawson
    Steve Lawson has over 20 years’ experience in aviation security. He is a director of AvSec Consulting, which provides aviation consulting, along with tailored travel and security advice for individuals and organisations ( Steve can be contacted via email or on 0404685103.