Experts slam Malaysia's struggle to chart MH370 crisis
Malaysian Maritime Enforcement personnel use radar to scan for the missing Boeing 777-200 as they fly over the waters off the northeastern coast of peninsula Malaysia, March 9, 2014 - by Malaysian Maritime Enforcement
With the search for flight MH370 now swinging away from the original zone, the airline and the government are accused of floundering as they face increasing demands for clarity.
"They have not experienced anything of this magnitude. It's a bit difficult for them to grasp the scale," Shukor Yusof, aviation analyst at Standard and Poor's Capital IQ, told AFP.
Malaysia Airlines (MAS) has issued more than a dozen statements to the media since the disappearance, including the full flight manifest, details of the search and rescue operation, and offered support to families while authorities have given regular briefings.
The airline has also offered to fly relatives to Kuala Lumpur to be closer to the search and has made 31,000 yuan ($5,000) available to the family of each missing passenger.
Some experts in public relations said the airline was doing its best in unprecedented circumstances.
But Yusof said the authorities had at times appeared "abrasive" and "flippant", while airline representatives had seemed "lacking in contrition" which belied poor staff training for crisis situations.
"This is an extremely serious tragedy and it has to be treated as such... I think communication has been very poor," he said.
- 'Unforgivable' -
Both the MAS updates and those from aviation chiefs have been under intense scrutiny from the press, public and international community since the flight disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing early Saturday with 239 people on board.
Social media erupted Wednesday after Malaysia confirmed it had taken the search northwest to the Andaman Sea -- far from MH370's intended flight path.
"Why so many unconfirmed accounts? Don't know what is the real info," posted one Twitter user.
China -- which had 153 nationals aboard -- has slammed Malaysia for a lack of information, while anguished relatives say the airline has been slow to communicate with them.
Adding to the confusion, MAS backtracked on a statement about the focus of the search Tuesday.
And Malaysia's air force chief meanwhile denied telling local media that the Boeing 777 had been detected in the Malacca Strait, far from its planned flight path.
For the plane to go missing is bad enough, "but then for the responsible country's government and aviation agencies to handle the associated information with total incompetence is unforgivable", David Learmount, operations and safety editor at industry magazine Flightglobal, wrote.
Senior Malaysian opposition figure Lim Kit Siang has also questioned why senior ministers were not more quickly informed about the missing plane.
"There are many questions about crisis management -- for instance, why the prime minister and the acting transport minister were not informed immediately when the MH370... went missing, as they only knew about it several crucial hours later," he said in a statement Sunday.
There was also some unwanted embarrassment when the transport ministry was forced to clarify comments by Malaysia's civil aviation chief, in which he referred to black Italian footballer Mario Balotelli when discussing two suspect passengers on the jet.
- 'Difficult conversations' -
But without a breakthrough in the search, some experts say there is little more the airline can do.
"In the absence of literally any information about the fate of the Malaysia Airlines plane it would be astonishing if there were not major criticism of the airline from the families," said Peter Hirsch, US-based director of reputation risk for Ogilvy Public Relations.
"On balance, the airline seems to be doing what it can."
Authorities will "almost inevitably" make mistakes in their communication, said aviation crisis management expert John Bailey.
"When was the last time that any of these individuals were involved in something on this scale? They quite possibly have not undergone training in what to expect and what to focus on."
"The real communication challenge for the airline and for all the other parties involved with this is dealing with the families. Managing their expectations over what's going to happen next -- those are very difficult conversations to have," said Bailey, who runs a Singapore-based PR consultancy.
Under pressure to communicate any kind of development, crisis management specialists praised Malaysia Airlines for its use of both social media and traditional media.
"Operationally, many good things are being done," said Ray Rudowski, regional director of crisis planning and training at Edelman Public Relations in Hong Kong.
"The problem is the lack of information at this point," he said, with still no trace of the plane on the fifth day of searching.
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