Crisis Management: Malaysian Airlines MH370

Background/ Context

Before anything, I would just like to say my heart goes out to all those affected by the recent incident. May those on the flight be well, happy, and free from suffering, and may their families and friends be well, happy, and free from suffering.

If you have not heard of the incident, a Malaysian Airlines flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing went missing on March 8th, 2014 (four days ago from time of my writing). As of now, no news has come regarding the search for the airplane- all they know are the identities of the passengers and that it completely disappeared without a trace.




This article explains the details if you are curious:

As this was quite close to home, my first reaction was to find out more and send love and kindness to all affected. As a marketer, however, my second instinct was curiosity in how Malaysian Airlines is comforting the public and handling the grief, fear, and outrage.

The Irrational Consumer

Before I begin, I will set out some things which some of you may be familiar with: the irrationality of consumer thought.

Professor Robert Bor explains: “”In life there’s always some kind of risk, but nowadays you have a greater chance of being kicked to death by a donkey than anything happening to you in an air crash.”

If we examine leading death rates in the world, we can see cardiovascular diseases, infectious diseases, and other medical conditions lead by a large gap. Up there, car crashes and suicide also rank quite high. Where is aviation accidents? It’s not even on the list. Especially in the modern day, a very small number of people actually die from plane crashes. But we know it doesn’t matter.

Consumers are always scared of things they do not understand, or things they cannot control. Consumers used to be terrified of elevators, hence the invention of elevator music (see the history of Muzak in providing comforting music). While we are less terrified of planes now, it is still difficult to extinguish and very easy to revive.

Knowing this, it is rational to think that Malaysian Airlines (MAS) is going for a bumpy ride. MAS has had a history of cash flow and management problems- especially since low-cost carrier AirAsia took over the Asian airways. This will only add another nail to their coffin. But of course, this is highly dependent on how they handle their PR.

Crisis Management

In marketing we have a general rule for crisis management:

1) Acknowledge and respond to issues quickly
2) Apologize ONLY after fault is determined to be the company
3) Be outrageously aggressive if fault lies elsewhere

This may sound mean, but there are reasons to each. First is quite obvious- companies should never be slow to a crisis, both for ethical and publicity reasons. BP’s month-long reaction to their oil spill is one example. Completely unacceptable and they were punished severely.

The second has to do with something called “Misinformation Effect”. Basically, this says that when people get an idea of something in their heads, this is very hard to change. So if a company apologizes for an accident, and consumers view them in fault of the crisis, this will be very difficult to change- even if it turns out to not be their fault. Subsequent information denying a claim is basically ignored, making an apology very tricky to perform.

The third has to do with ensuring everyone knows it is not the airlines fault, and that customer rage is quenched. Basically, if rage is not dealt with in a very severe manner (making consumers believe that is all they could do, and that their loss has met justice) that rage may just turn around and hurt the company. This is also tricky- because if this is done prematurely, and it turns out to be the company’s fault, they have just stabbed themselves twice (once for the false claim, once for the angry customers).

MAS Response

In view of this, I was interested to see how Malaysian Airlines responded… and I was pleasantly surprised.


Malaysian Airlines did everything correctly. They did not blame anyone for it unjustified (they even ignored the speculation about terrorists due to the use of two stolen passports:, and they did not apologise prematurely. They took action immediately and were transparent about their efforts.

A great success to Malaysia Airlines. Although the statement about Mario Balotelli was not very appropriate, they have managed the situation as well as they could have- and the factor determining their success now lies on the results of the investigation.

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