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What CMOs can Learn from Malaysia Airline’s Management of the MH370 Crisis

July 9, 2014 Conferences No Comments Email Email

“A word that was used repeatedly to describe Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 and the events around it was ‘unprecedented’.

The disappearance of a modern Boeing 777, the size and scope of the search operations and the scale of interest in the story were unprecedented,” explained Dean Dacko, SVP Marketing, Malaysia Airlines. A keynote speaker at the marcus evans CMO Summit 2014, taking place in the Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia, 18 – 20 August, Dacko said the impact on the company, country and drop in travellers in the region was even worse than when SARS broke out.

Like every airline in the world, Malaysia Airlines had a manual and procedures for managing a crisis, but no amount of preparation, training or experience could have prepared it for what Dacko referred to as the greatest mystery in aviation history.

“With no wreckage from the aircraft, within ten days the manual was virtually irrelevant and we had to start writing our own. We managed the crisis while every media agency in the world was reporting on the story, police agencies were investigating, and we continued carrying 47,000 passengers a day in 400 flights.”

How the airline leveraged its capabilities for monitoring social media sites and engaged people provides valuable lessons for Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs) everywhere, Dacko highlighted. “We monitored what was being said and how the market was reacting to what we did. In seven weeks, there were 58 million posts on our various sites. When the spotlight is so intense, it can freeze even the most capable people, as anything they do will have both a positive and negative impact. For us to move in a compassionate yet proactive manner, we needed intelligence on what was being communicated around the world. Having a state-of-the-art digital communications capability built-in before MH370 allowed us to move forward.”

Within seven hours, Malaysia Airlines was able to transition to an environment where every commercial message on its website was stripped away, presenting MH370 information in text only for 40 days. Subsequently, it progressively transitioned back to being commercially active in the marketplace, without offending the families of the passengers or crew. “It took Air France, which was probably the most similar situation to MH370, more than a year to make the transition back to a formally commercial environment, while we did it in less than two months. We suffered significant forward-booking reduction in the period we were virtually black from a promotional standpoint, but we turned that trend around in two months to the point of achieving the second largest revenue month on our direct booking channels in the entire history of the airline in May.”

Dacko concluded: “What made Malaysia Airlines successful was the recognition that being silent in the marketplace was not commercially acceptable. We needed to move forward while being highly sensitive to the environment we were in. Our strategy was to move, measure and adjust, and we did that with every point of sale we have worldwide and every message that was communicated. Throughout the entire process, we never had a situation where we had to move backwards or take down a message, although we were prepared for that. We seemed to be able to anticipate exactly the right thing to say at the right time from a commercial standpoint.”

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