By Paul Mwirigi Muriungi
The world is still reeling from the sad news of the ill-fated flight ET302 that left Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa at 8:38am for Nairobi, Kenya. A flight tracking site indicated that the plane had shown signs of trouble minutes after take-off.
The Boeing 737 Max 800 plane crash that claimed all 157 people on board in the early morning of Sunday 10th March 2019 bears with it many lessons from a communications point of view.
1. The official news confirming the crash was broken via Social Media
We are officially in the age of social media which has clout over traditional news channels when it comes to breaking news. Social media has indeed changed how people consume news; overtime it has become the main source of breaking news.
Gone are the days of waiting for the 7pm news bulletin – be it political, sports, business, environmental, entertainment or pure gossip news. It was therefore not a surprise that a tweet from Abiy Ahmed Ali – the Ethiopian Prime Minister – was quoted as the first official news source of the crash.
However, others have noted that Ethiopia controls media and internet access hence private media were scared of reporting the story without Government approval. Whether this is true or not, the fact remains social broke the news.
2. Fake news still exists even in times of mourning
These days it can be challenging to tell fact from fiction especially when it comes to viral news stories. With fake news, stories and photos flooding the internet, one needs to be careful not to fall victim to incorrect information.
After the news of the Ethiopian Airlines crash went viral, many fake photos and videos went viral in social media. Most of these photos were picked from previous air crash incidents in Africa, Middle East and Europe; sadly they were used to represent the crash site of ET 302.
It is important to note that in this era of social media, it is best to confirm authenticity of any piece of information that one receives – especially before sharing it. A simple way to do this is through a Google search (for both images and written content).
3. A strong brand reputation can withstand a major PR crisis
In the aftermath of the news, some major global television networks given commentary to the effect that Ethiopian Airlines had a questionable safety record. This was picked up by a number of concerned aviation experts and former passengers who brought to light the contrary.
Many of its endorsers came out online to state their consistently good reputation for being a safe airline to travel in and use of modern aircrafts. In addition, Ethiopian Airlines has a long list of awards, accolades, and milestones (https://www.ethiopianairlines.com/corporate/company/about-us/awards) that have all gone to strengthen its brand globally; something that is really admirable for an African run airline.
A brand that is strong can withstand shocks because fans are more forgiving about an unfortunate situation. Remember Samsung and it’s exploding phones? Or various models of the iPhone and their technical challenges? Or Johnson & Johnson and the ovarian cancer case? Or the Toyota floor mat recall crisis?
4. Management of a crisis needs to be handled at the highest level
The first official press conference held in Addis Ababa at the Ethiopian Airlines Headquarters after news of the crash came filtering through was addressed by none other, but the Ethiopian Airlines Group CEO Tewolde GebreMariam.
He took time to answer questions from various reporters in regard to the crash of ET 302. Where he did not have answers, he took time to state that they would be further investigating the accident in order to avoid speculation and information would be shared with the press.
He also acknowledged other stakeholders involved including the aircraft manufacturer Boeing, Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority and other international entities hence letting everyone know that this was a multifaceted crisis. How well is your CEO prepared for a crisis, particularly one involving the media?
5. Drip information is the key to managing information needs and crisis PR
You are handling a crisis but do not have the complete information. No worries. Do what I call ‘Drip Feed Information’. Just like drips (intravenous fluids) administered in hospitals and used to pass on the much needed fluids and medicines directly into one’s blood, drip feed information can be used to supply information constantly but in small amounts.
Ethiopian Airlines have done this perfectly by issuing out accident bulletins stating the number, date, and time it was issued. This information has been used by many media channels as well as other stakeholders to get updated with the matter as they arise.
Withholding information in a crisis situation is akin to cooking food in a pressure cooker. Remember that the goal isn’t keeping everything until you have all details but to provide an abundance of details as soon as you get to know (and confirm) them.
The writer is a marketing and communication consultant. You can reach him on +256 776 888 750