MH370 Disappearance: No Theories, Only Lessons Learned

So far the exact fate of flight MH370 has not been determined. We can't learn anything from the crash yet, but we can learn something about crisis communications...

"Malaysian Three Seven Zero contact Ho Chi Minh 120 decimal 9 Good Night"

"Good Night Malaysian Three Seven Zero"

With those words, flight MH370 from Kualar Lumpur to Beijing disappeared, and was never seen or heard from again.

About an hour and twenty minutes later, it was realized by Subang Air Traffic Control that the aircraft was missing. After leaving Malaysian air space, it had apparently never contacted Ho Chi Minh air traffic control. At this point there was still hope: aircraft radios have been known to fail, pilots have been known to divert, and it was too early to conclude that the plane was definitely lost. As the clock ticked on, past the point where the plane's fuel would have run out and with no reports of emergency landings, it became clear that the plane had crashed.

So began one of the most confusing air crashes in history: there are some military radar tracks possibly associated with the plane, a theoretical track based upon the delays and doppler shift of a satellite signal, but no evidence to suggest why the aircraft changed course, or where it is now.

However, the impression left on the rest of the world by Malaysian Airlines and the Malaysian authorities is one of total confusion. Everybody seemed to be giving statements and announcing new findings, only to have the information contradicted minutes or hours later. The friends and relatives of those on board were quickly exasperated: only conspiracy theories seemed to explain the lack of reliable information. It was a communications disaster.

There's a quotation from Sherlock Holmes that seems appropriate here:

It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.
(A Scandal in Bohemia, Arthur Conan Doyle, 1892)

However, the problem here was not a lack of facts: it was a surplus of irrelevant facts.

Debris fields were quickly spotted in the ocean near where the plane was last seen on radar. These proved not to be related to the aircraft. Then debris fields were reported in another area. Then an oil slick. Governments were castigated for not investigating a particular sighting, or reported that plane debris had been found. All these were eventually discounted. Unfortunately there is so much debris in the worlds' oceans that anywhere you look for debris, you will quite likely find some. Then there were possible pings from the flight recorder. These came and went for tantalizing short periods, and led to a sea bed search. Nothing was found. Were they from the plane? It's still possible that they were. Unfortunately sound sometimes travels extraordinary distances in the ocean, and the few signals heard could have been from anywhere over a wide area.

The complexity of the conflicting information can be seen from this rather confusing summary of all the information known so far found in The Aviation Herald.

What can we learn from this disaster? We can't learn anything yet about air safety, but we can learn something about disaster communication. From the press reports, it was evident that we should:

  • Communicate through a single point of contact.
    (In the MH370 disaster too many people were commenting and providing unverified information.)
  • Be very clear about what is known, what is not known, and what is simply a theory that is being investigated.
  • Explain normal procedures and technical operations to defuse conspiracy theories.

The last of these is particularly important, and is one of the areas that the Malaysian authorities had great difficulty. For example:

  • Why weren't friends and relatives told immediately the aircraft was reported missing?
    (Because in most cases the aircraft is simply delayed, a pilot has forgotten to report, or a radio is nor working correctly. It's not fun being told your relatives are dead when they aren't.)
  • Why did passenger's mobile phones still appear to ring after the plane disappeared?
    (Because the ring tone indicates the network is trying to contact the subscriber, not that the subscriber's phone is actually ringing)
  • Why didn't the authorities know where the plane was at all times?
    (Because of the ranges involved, and because the curvature of the earth means that much of the world is outside ground radar coverage.)
  • And so on…

Before a disaster happens, it is therefore important to identify in your planning:

  • Who will communicate?
  • What will they say?
  • How will they react to outlandish theories and suggestions?
  • How will they make it very clear what actions are being taken in the public interest?
  • How will they convince a cynical audience that the disaster will never happen again?

This is a good area for tabletop training exercises for those who might be involved in public and internal communications. Until you have had the experience of dealing with a small crowd of noisy mock journalists asking difficult question and misinterpreting your answer, you are not prepared for crisis communications.

10 July 2014

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