Missing MH370: Dilemma of giving out timely and accurate information

Missing MH370: Dilemma of giving out timely and accurate information
The runway at Taipei's Chiang Kai-shek airport and the wreckage of SIA's SQ 006 which crashed on the October 31, 2000.

The authorities managing a crisis wrestle with the dilemma of giving out timely information to families - and the media - desperate for any news while making sure the information is accurate.

This is the challenge facing the Malaysian authorities who are still trying to locate the Boeing 777-200 aircraft that disappeared last Saturday and who have come under fire for giving out conflicting reports in some instances.

Said crisis management expert Rick Clements: "The aircraft is missing and it has not been found. There is really nothing much the airline can say. Yet it is important that any information that is given must be absolutely accurate and it should come from the official government source."

Mr Clements headed Singapore Airlines' public relations team during the crashes of a SilkAir flight in 1997 and Singapore Airlines in 2000. Social media makes matters worse now, he said.

"There are always rumours and speculation but in MI185 and SQ006 there was no social media.

"Here, you have speculation from everywhere spreading all over the place like wildfire. Families hear these rumours and they want the airline to comment and, of course, the airline cannot if it is not sure of the facts."

Without a crash site or even clear leads on what happened to MH370, the Malaysian authorities, including the civil aviation department and military investigators, appear increasingly beleaguered.

Mr Clements, who now runs his own strategic and crisis communications consultancy, said: "In any air tragedy, the primary focus must be family care and taking care of the survivors, if any. This is mainly the responsibility of the airline."

Giving out timely and consistent information is also critical.

On both these fronts, SIA did better in 2000 than it did in 1997, said experts.

When SilkAir Flight MI185 plunged into Palembang's Musi River in December 1997, killing all 104 on board, families of victims waited 17 hours before they were taken to the crash site.

Three years later when a Singapore Airlines (SIA) jet crashed in Taipei, arrangements to fly the families were made in less than 12 hours.

That tragedy claimed 82 lives and put many more passengers and crew in hospital, some with extensive burns and injuries.

Apart from anticipating families' needs better, the airline also had a more savvy media response plan.

Less than three hours after SQ006 bound for Los Angeles crashed just before take-off in Taipei, SIA gave its first media briefing in Changi Airport, at 2am.

By 7am, the fourth briefing had started. Four more were conducted before the day ended.

In 1997, the first briefing for relatives was conducted at 9.30pm, more than five hours after the crash.

The next morning, then Communications Minister Mah Bow Tan gave a press briefing.

Yesterday, SIA declined to comment on the lessons learnt in the SilkAir crash that were applied in Taipei beyond saying that in an emergency, a senior management team, comprising all division heads, would be activated.

The department in charge of crisis management conducts regular exercises to ensure everyone is familiar with activation procedures, and roles and responsibilities.

In Singapore, search and rescue operations for air mishaps are provided by the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore in collaboration with the defence and health ministries, Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore, the Meteorological Service of Singapore and the Singapore Police Force, among other government and relevant bodies.

Search and rescue operations are conducted through the Singapore Rescue Coordination Centre, which is located at the Singapore Air Traffic Control Centre.

Every country should have such a set-up, experts say.

But with MH370 still missing, managing the growing frustration among the family members and loved ones of those on board is a challenge.

As long as no clues surface, the ordeal will only continue for affected families and the airline, observers said.

karam@sph.com.sg


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