Back Asian Resilience Summit: Boeing, Sri Lanka ‘mishandled media’

Crisis communications experts have criticised responses to recent crises in the travel sector, including the Boeing 737 MAX crashes and bombings in Sri Lanka.

Paul Charles, chief executive of the PC Agency in London, hit out at the response of Boeing to the Ethiopian Airlines disaster in March which led to the worldwide grounding of the 737 MAX aircraft.

He told the Asian Resilience Summit in Nepal: “The world wants to see a response [and] Boeing was not visible. Its response was lacklustre.” Boeing had seen “a massive fall in its share price” as a result, he said.

By contrast, he said: “Ethiopian Airlines was visible. Its chief executive Tewolde Gebremariam was photographed among the wreckage of the aircraft, picking up a piece of wreckage.”

But that was also a mistake, Charles suggested, arguing: “He was trying to show confidence, but he was contaminating the crash scene and Ethiopian was criticised for it. You have to think about visibility, but the CEO should have been photographed away from the wreckage.”

Sri Lanka’s authorities were criticised for shutting down social media platforms in the wake of the bombings on Easter Sunday.

Virginia Ngai, director of strategy at Hong Kong-based consultancy CatchOn – part of Finn Partners – said: “Sri Lanka shut down social media [and] that creates the impression there is something to hide.

“It frustrates people and, with VPN [virtual private networks], anyone can get through [anyway].”

Charles agreed, saying: “Governments that shut down social media are showing they are fundamentally not trustworthy.”

But he added: “The fundamental issue is trust. Do you trust social media? There are players intent on sowing disinformation. Social media can be wonderful, but it can also be very difficult because of misinformation.”

The key to communicating, he said, was to ask: “Is information from a trusted source?”

Charles cited American Airlines’ response to a crash in November 2001, weeks after 9/11, as a text-book example of how to deal with the media in a crisis – when American Airlines’ then chief executive Don Carty addressed a press conference two hours after the crash.

He said: “Carty moved quickly to coordinate the response and provide some basic facts. He delivered a clear message. Carty would not take questions, but he left everyone clear.

“In a crisis, it’s vital to show leadership, to show one person is in charge and making decisions.”

The Asian Resilience Summit in Kathmandu was organised by The Resilience Council and Travel Weekly parent Jacobs Media Group and co-hosted by the Nepal Tourism Board.

The Resilience Council's next event, the African Resilience Summit, has been organised in partnership with the Africa Travel Association. It is on July 24 2019 in Johannesburg, during the 42nd World Tourism Conference in South Africa.