The crash of a jet throws crisis communicators into the unenviable position of managing reputation amid a horrific tragedy that far outweighs concerns about a brand.
But when a Malaysia Airlines jet crashed today—the second such disaster within a few months, as apparently happened with the reported shooting down of its jet in Ukraine
—the damage went beyond even the incalculable human loss to become an international political crisis.
Ukrainian Interior Ministry adviser Anton Herashchenko claimed a Malyasian plane had been shot down by a ground-to-air missile, killing all 280 passengers and 15 crew members. The nation’s president says no Ukrainian forces were taking action in the area, implying that pro-Russian separatists downed the jet.
The Boeing 777, flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, crashed near the town of Shakhtarsk in eastern Donetsk region, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported
. The area is a rebel stronghold.
Meanwhile, Malaysia Airlines reported it had lost contact with a plane from Amsterdam over Ukraine.
Second disaster this year
Malaysia Airlines was struck by disaster in March when Flight 370 disappeared over the ocean on a route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew members. The crash site has not been found.
In Ukraine Thursday, Reuters reported
that bodies were scattered around the wreckage of the crashed passenger jet.
“An emergency services rescue worker said at least 100 bodies had so far been found at the scene, near the village of Grabovo, and that debris from the wreckage was spread across an area up to about 15 km (nine miles) in diameter,” the news wire reported.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said plane may have been shot down, but Ukrainian armed forces “did not take any action against any targets” in that area, according to RFE/RL.
The Kyiv Post
reported that separatists were preventing Ukrainian rescuers and law enforcement officers from accessing the crash site.
The New York Times
stated that an official with the insurgent group in eastern Ukraine denied
that the rebels had anything to do with the loss of the passenger jet.
At least in the early stages, the downing of the plane appears to be a major crisis for Russia, says Gerald Baron of Agincourt Strategies in Bellingham, Washington. Ukrainian aircraft have been shot down in the past, with rebels claiming responsibility and Ukraine blaming Moscow.
“While President Putin appears to be attempting to make the conflict look like he has little role in it, news reports such as [those] from The Economist make it quite clear that it is Russia's war with Ukraine,” Baron said in an email. “In many ways his actions seem out of step with the times—he seems to think that the old style of Soviet-era dissimulation can work.”
It is also a crisis for Malaysia Airlines, though a lesser one, he adds.
“Hopefully, they will do a much better job of transparent communication about this incident,” Baron says. “Certainly it seems in this case they were the innocent victim, but even that position can be hurt by slow or inadequate communication.”
The disaster stirred up recriminations on Twitter, with many alleging that a separatist leader was boasting on Vkontakte
—a Russian-language social medium—about downing a Ukrainian transport plane. Others claimed the page was a fake put up by fans of his.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Applebaum, an expert on Russia and Eastern Europe, used Twitter to cast doubt on Russian claims to innocence.
Malaysia Airlines was criticized for a fumbling its response to the previous disaster. In such situations, brands must be forthcoming, says Gil Rudawsky of GroundFloor Media
“From a crisis perspective, airlines and transportation officials need to be as transparent as possible with the media and the families,” he says. “They need daily updates on what happened, and what steps are being taken to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”
At least initially, there appeared to be some glitches in Malaysia Airlines’ response. The airline was tweeting
and posting updates
about the crash, but hours after the crash, the most recent news release on its press page
was titled, “Malaysia Airlines Offers Additional Capacity for Raya.”
The Los Angeles Times
stated that President Obama said U.S. officials were trying to determine whether American citizens were on board. Obama said the crash “looks like it may be a terrible tragedy” and offered his thoughts and prayers to families of the victims. "The United States will offer any assistance we can to help determine what happened and why," he told reporters in Wilmington, Delaware.
The White House was careful in its online messaging, tweeting, “The world is watching reports of a downed passenger jet near the Russia-Ukraine border,” and offering sympathy to the victims’ families.
Communication lessons from a Ukrainian website
Throughout the conflict in Ukraine this year, Russia, Ukraine, and the pro-Russia rebels have attempted to push their own story lines. Baron recently blogged
, a Ukrainian effort to highlight what he called the propaganda and misinformation produced by the Kremlin and its allies in Ukraine.
Stopfake offers a lesson to other communicators, Baron says, adding that he has long advocated that organizations heavily discussed in the news or social media have a fact-checking section on their websites.
“The biggest impact is sending a message to your critics, or the news editors, or social media posters that you are watching and that you will catch and correct their errors,” he writes.
“If credibility is important to them (it still is to most), they will be more careful in the future what they report, tweet, retweet, or comment knowing that you are monitoring and not afraid to call them out if a report or content is seriously off-base.”