Since disappearing nearly two weeks ago, speculation regarding the whereabouts of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 has been rampant. Families of the passengers have suffered from long delays in getting information. And when updates do come, they’ve been muddled - filled with incorrect, vague or contradictory statements. Traditional/online news outlets, and social networks have filled the information vacuum with theories and rumors of terrorism, hijacking, electrical fires, meteors and government cover-ups.
Malaysia's response has been overseen personally by its Prime Minister, who in turn put his cousin in charge of the day-to-day interactions with the media. These leaders represent a government that has been in power for 57 years and hasn’t had a lot of practice being held accountable by its people, or scrutinized by the dozens of other countries it is trying to lead in an enormous search and rescue effort.
"The Malaysians deserve to be criticized - their handling of this has been atrocious," said Ernest Bower, a Southeast Asia specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
It’s true that a crisis this complicated, emotional and mysterious would test the mettle of any leader.
How should leaders communicate when faced with an unexpected crisis, whether it’s a major and hopefully very infrequent one like missing Flight 370, or the more common snafus that occur in all of our organizations?
Here are a few of WJM’s key “best practices” for leaders communicating in a crisis.
It’s human nature to want to avoid thinking about crisis planning. But it’s a big mistake is to assume nothing bad will ever happen, or that whatever the bad thing is, it will be unexpected and therefore there’s no point in planning ahead for it.
It is better to plan for crisis before one happens because it’s much easier to strategize without a reporter’s microphone being thrust in your face. Being prepared allows a leader to address a challenge quickly which is key to maintaining trust and credibility (see below). Have a plan for who is in charge of formulating a response and who will be involved in communicating it. Trying to figure this out in the midst of a crisis will certainly slow things down.
Be Fast…and Honest
Immediacy and transparency are the two critical components of handling a crisis well. Respect people’s need for information. Leave them in the dark too long and someone else will provide the information for you. Rumors, conspiracy theories and a breakdown of trust and credibility will quickly follow.
Be honest about what you do and don’t know. Be forthcoming about the facts you have, the ones you don’t and what you are doing to get them.
“Transparency is inevitable - the truth will eventually appear, no matter how much we might wish it away.” says Stephanie Silverman, a WJM Faculty member and communications expert. “When faced with a crisis, stalling for time by remaining silent is never a good strategy for a leader. The best outcomes occur when the leader stays ahead of the story.”
One of the challenges for the Malaysian government is that it already has a reputation for secrecy, corruption and incompetence. Without contravening information about the missing plane investigation, people have been left to assume the worst about the government’s response.
One of the best ways a leader can prepare for the inevitable crisis is to ensure his/her reputation before one hits. Effective leaders have built up a ‘bank of goodwill’ ahead of a crisis by acting with transparency and consistency, by frequently communicating and delivering on a core set of values. These are the leaders who will be forgiven more quickly when something does go wrong.
It is a truism that a crisis often brings with it opportunity. By following the above fundamental principles for communicating during a crisis, a leader can better seize this opportunity, rather than just play victim to events.
Tim Morin is the President & CEO of WJM Associates, Inc. (212) 972-7400, www.wjmassoc.com