How to hold a presser on missing planes and other major crises

Malaysian Airlines jet vanishes above Vietnam - 09 Mar 2014

THE press conference on Thursday, Day 6 of the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner was much better than the chaotic and confrontational briefing held the day before. Maybe the media relations team for the search operation authorities did feedback the criticism on social media to chief spokesperson, Acting Transport Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, after all. For one, he stopped his trademark smirk and grin, which several on Twitter had said was inappropriate for the occasion.

What we can learn from how the authorities have handled the missing MH370 crisis – from the media relations perspective at least – is that it’s okay not to have the answers to everything immediately. But when lives are at stake and where the international spotlight is on, it is better to be transparent about why you don’t have the answers. Equally important is to explain the processes involved in order to get those answers.

The various authorities in the search for the missing plane are no doubt doing their best under incredibly strenuous circumstances. And to those handling media relations for these authorities involved in unravelling the mystery of the missing flight MH370, here are some suggestions on how your press conferences could be calmer, more organised and more fruitful for the media corps. In turn, you won’t suffer scorn for being incompetent or worse, be accused of hiding vital information.

Firstly, it’s helpful to explain technical processes and terms, even if it may sound pedantic and even if journalists don’t use every detail in their reports. The benefit of details is to provide context and understanding of a situation and can make a difference in the way a report is written.

For example, the confusion over whether MH370 did or did not fly back across the northern part of the Peninsular and over the Strait of Malacca. Only from the press conference on Day 5, Wednesday, since the plane was reported missing, did the media know – and by extension, most lay readers – that there are such things as primary and secondary radars; one able to pick up details of an air craft’s identity, the other merely able to record blips on a screen without more information. The Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF), which revealed this information, still doesn’t know conclusively if the unidentified flying object seen over the Strait of Malacca was indeed MH370.

Some questions that come to mind for the layperson: What is the difference in purpose between a primary and secondary radar, what are the differences between the radar capabilities of the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) and the military, and why wouldn’t a primary radar be able to identify positively if a blip was a commercial airline or not? What does a reciprocal heading after an air turn back mean and under what circumstances is such a manoeuvre made by a pilot? Are radar data collected by individual agencies assessed together in a time of crisis like this? What are the standard operating procedures when a commercial airliner goes missing, and how, what criteria, and at which point are other agencies such as the armed forces, coast guard or counter terrorism units, etc, brought in to be part of the operation?

And let’s not go into the earlier confusion and contradictory statements over passengers who checked in but didn’t board the plane. These are examples of information on developing angles the authorities could have offered, prior to Day 6. Instead, journalists had to seek out other experts and commentators to fill the gaps the authorities failed to cover, opening the door to even more speculation.

Secondly, visual aids can be helpful when explaining the search area, points of last known radar contact, radar coverage of air traffic control by different countries, and possible flight trajectories, rather than talking heads trying to make complex and technical details understandable. Visuals enhance understanding and reduce the possibility of misreporting or coming to inaccurate conclusions.

Thirdly, anticipate what the press will ask. Monitor what is being reported worldwide about the missing plane in newspapers, websites, blogs, social media and TV talk shows. Experts of all kinds and aviation authorities in other countries are being called upon by the world media to analyse the possible reasons for the plane’s disappearance. Showing awareness of the various issues and theories that are being raised is better than saying you haven’t received any information on the matter when speculation is already out there.

It’s good to note that the presser on Day 6 saw Hishammuddin and team ready with answers to the two top issues of the day – the images of floating debris picked up by Chinese satellite in the South China Sea, and the Wall Street Journal report that MH370 could have flown on “for hours” based on data bursts received from its Rolls-Royce engines.

Fourthly, break down information on all developing angles to minimise chaos and irritation during press conferences, which are telecast live on local channels and international media as well.

Consider segmenting the press briefing to deal with and take questions on each facet of the story – radar and air traffic control information, search area updates, oil slicks and other sea surfaces images, passenger data, stolen passports, terrorism or hijacking theories, and so on – one facet at a time, so that it is thoroughly discussed. For this, the minister or spokesperson can’t limit a press conference to 30 minutes or less and cut short reporters’ questions and make as if he or she has to rush off for the next function.

Fifthly – and by appearances this seems to have been a key problem with the communications side of the search operation to date – coordinate the information coming out of the different agencies and counterparts so that a clear, concise and watertight chronology of events is presented, which helps journalists understand the context of the latest developments.

Why, for example, did the RMAF not disclose earlier, as it became public on Day 1 that the jet had gone missing over Vietnam waters, that its radar had picked up an unidentified aircraft crossing back over the Peninsular and over the Strait of Malacca? Why did the revelation that the plane had possibly made a turn around only come later? (There was a clue, however, which most media may have missed, in a Bernama report on Day 1, 8 March 2014, which quoted the DCA chief saying the search will include the Straits of Malacca.)

Other nagging questions: Why did Vietnam say on Day 5 that it had detected the plane’s turn around before losing contact with it on Saturday, and had told Malaysia about it then, but received no reply? If Malaysia knew about the turn around then, why did the RMAF chief only mention it in his interview with Berita Harian that was published on Tuesday? (Although why he then denied it only to re-confirm it during Wednesday’s press conference is baffling.)

Reading or hearing such information in a piecemeal manner only raises more questions: Has the search been focused on the wrong areas? And if so, where might the missing plane be now? And if we have been looking in the wrong places all this while, what are the chances of the crew and passengers’ survival?

Had all the information possessed by each authority about radar readings been laid on the table early on, the embarrassment of the RMAF chief could have been avoided and the flaying by the media for incompetence, perhaps, might be a bit more muted. The rationale for the wide search area spanning the South China Sea, the Gulf of Thailand, the Malacca Strait and the Andaman Sea could have been understood from the onset, and the magnitude of the task appreciated from early on. The net could have been cast wider sooner, hopefully increasing the chances of finding the aircraft. News reports would have been more focused, perhaps less speculative and accusatory.

All the above will mean that agencies and their international counterparts must work together under a clear chain of command. It means forming a crisis team with one lead agency and one commander-in-chief who has a bird’s eye view of the whole search effort and who can connect the dots for journalists when gaps appear. If this is being done, great – but it simply isn’t apparent enough, judging from the way the press conferences are handled. Hopefully Day 6 will mark the start of improved communications.

It is true that part of public relations involves managing perceptions. And in a time of crisis, it can make or break reputations and boost or destroy credibility, even when the answers sought are not yet to be found.

As the authorities work tirelessly to find the missing plane, public relations should not be used as a defensive tactic in the face of criticism. Adopting a rhetorical approach is not helpful to anyone, such as by saying that people are confused only if they want to be.

Nor should public relations be used to cover the gaps to missing answers. Instead, it should shed light on the pain and difficulty in the search for answers, and do so in a way that inspires confidence and builds credibility, even if hopes for survivors fade.

Deborah Loh dabbles in a bit of public relations as a freelance writer.