Comparing Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia’s crisis responses

In the aftermath of the crash of AirAsia flight QZ8501, the airline is doing textbook crisis communications, unlike its peers at Malaysia Airlines.

Next time you’re looking for a case study in crisis communications, think of 2014 and two airlines with very different approaches.

Malaysia Airlines suffered two separate disasters over the course of the year. Flight 370 disappeared in March and Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine in July. Then an AirAsia flight from Indonesia crashed in late December due to poor weather conditions. AirAsia and Malaysia Airlines took two very different approaches in the days after these disasters, and Malaysia Airlines in particular didn’t exactly help its cause in the months following.

The Malaysia Airlines response showed “a lack of urgency in the initial hours, transparency in releasing information and coordination on where to search, according to AdAge. Meanwhile, Skift.com is praising AirAsia, saying its “initial response to the tragedy is a textbook example of how to communicate in a crisis.”

Even this past weekend, when word came down that AirAsia would be investigated for reportedly flying without permission on the fated Surabaya-to-Singapore flight. A somewhat misleading headline in The Wall Street Journal asked, “What Happened to the Openness at AirAsia?”

The company briefly went silent before issuing the following statement:

As you know the government has suspended our flight QZ8501 from Surabaya to Singapore [and] vice versa. To that effect, the government is doing an evaluation process to investigate. AirAsia management will fully cooperate with the government in that evaluation process. In that regard we, management of AirAsia, would not make any comment on that period of evaluation process until the evaluation result has been announced.

Even the expert source in WSJ‘s article explains AirAsia’s lack of action in this as normal in a crisis communication scenario: “Someone was probably blindsided by this,” said Tom Evrard, crisis communications expert at FTI Strategic Communications in Singapore. “They have to gather all the facts.”

It’s clear that AirAsia’s strong crisis communications has started from the top. One of the first things we heard from CEO Tony Fernandes in the hours after the crash referenced the families of the passengers: “I apologize profusely for what they are going through. I am the leader of this company and I have to take responsibility.”

From that moment, everyone knew who was in charge. He has kept a steady stream of updates on his Twitter account. And Fernandes, who serves as chairman of the English football club Queens Park Rangers, has kept his focus on the crash victims even in the wake of an embarrassing defeat for the team.

No crisis communications effort will ever be perfect. By nature, a crises is something that we can only plan for to a point. Airlines have a better idea than most industries what potential crises they’re going to face. But in the days after AirAsia’s ordeal, the company already looks like it’s in a different league than Malaysia Airlines.

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