Malaysia Airlines’ Social Strategy Takes Off During MH370 Crisis

Jade Osowski, Health Editor

In 2014, an estimated 40 percent of the world population was connected to the Internet, according to Internet Live Stats, which amounted to nearly three billion people. With numbers like that, one can imagine how quickly word spread when a plane carrying more than 200 people went completely off the radar and was later declared missing.

This was the case with Malaysia Airlines when flight MH370 lost contact with Air Traffic Control about an hour after departing from Kuala Lumpur on March 8, 2014. Though planes have gone missing in the past, the Malaysian flight was the first large commercial plane to disappear in the days of social media, carrying a total of 239 passengers and crew.

Maneuvering the disappearance of a plane via social media created a new experience for the aviation industry. People across the globe anxiously awaited updates. When an update was shared, people received the messages immediately, analyzing each word.

Vanessa Phillips, social media coordinator for Lewis University, explained that a typical protocol on social media is to avoid being silent during a crisis.

“The purpose of social media is to provide real-time updates, which is absolutely necessary during a crisis,” Phillips said. “For example, when the Boston Marathon bombing happened, the Boston Police Department was able to use Twitter to correct media that were reporting incorrect information.”

Malaysia Airlines chose to limit their status updates to Facebook and Twitter, halting activity on all other mediums. They utilized the hashtag #MASalert, meaning Malaysia Airline System alert, to remain consistent among their updates. The airline quickly changed its branding to a respectful and low-key gray color, including their cover photo and profile image to reflect the mood and severity of the situation.

“Twitter is probably what most organizations utilize first during a crisis because it’s one of the few platforms that is truly in real-time,” Phillips said. “For example, Facebook only shows about 20 percent of your posts to your followers; that’s not very helpful during a crisis situation.”

The airline carrier posted its first media statement on Facebook at 7:24 a.m. local time, confirming that flight MH370 had lost contact with Subang Air Traffic Control at 2:40 a.m.

“Malaysia Airlines is currently working with the authorities who have activated their Search and Rescue team to locate the aircraft,” the statement read. “The airline will provide regular updates on the situation. Meanwhile, the public may contact +603 7884 1234 for further info.”

After posting many official statements, Malaysia Airlines’ first personable and emotional tweet regarding the incident read, “We share the anxieties of family members and we’re doing everything possible to get more status updates on MH370.”

That specific tweet, and many alike, included a link where those interested could find more information; however, the content can no longer be found. The webpage now reads, “We’ve done some spring cleaning to our site in order to serve your needs better. As such, the page you are looking for has probably been moved.”

Regardless of the information possibly being moved elsewhere, the original link on Twitter is broken with no redirect, which leads people to believe that the updates have been removed. Phillips believes the information should have remained more readily accessible.

“Just because you removed information doesn’t mean that people will forget about it,” Phillips said. “Nobody likes to feel like information is being hidden from them, so I think it’s better to leave it and address the questions as they arise.”

With such global attention, the company saw growth in audience on their social media channels.

According to BirdSong, a social media analytics service, Malaysia Airlines’ Twitter account jumped by almost 20 percent between March 8 and 9, and Facebook fans followed suit as well.

As defined by BirdSong, Facebook engagement levels equal the number of those “talking about” a brand on a fan page divided by the number of fans in total. Malaysia Airlines’ Facebook page showed a massive engagement increase, going from 2 percent prior to March 8 and escalating to 15 percent by March 9.

Although the company strived to stay respectful to family and friends aboard flight MH370, and the onlookers prayed for their safety, one message on Facebook in particular was criticized, receiving a rather angry response.

Malaysia Airlines used a common aviation industry term “PAX” in place of the word “passengers” in a social media post.

One misused word and shortly thereafter, many people abruptly called out the airlines’ insensitivity toward the situation. Although the company was working hard to be respectful, just one word changed the public’s opinion. This exemplifies the intensity of the situation for Malaysia Airlines and how careful they needed to be about each and every word they used.

Malaysia Airlines returned to regular posts about two months after the incident, which could be expected considering the circumstances.

“I think that the social account returns to normal postings once a conclusion to the crisis has been reached,” Phillips said. “The beauty of social media is that you are easily able to gauge audience interest. Once the public stops talking on social media, then it’s probably okay to start with normal postings again.”

After the turn of events the airlines experienced, it was no surprise that the company was in the midst of financial struggle. In an attempt to bring back customers, Malaysia Airlines ran an online promotional campaign that asked customers to name their bucket list travel destinations.

It didn’t take long for people to criticize the bucket list, which contains activities a person hopes to do before they die, considering their connection with two of the worst airline tragedies of 2014, including the gunned down flight, MH17, just four months after MH370.

“Malaysia Airlines has withdrawn the title of a competition running in Australia and New Zealand, as it is found to be inappropriate at this point in time,” the airline said in a statement. “The competition had been earlier approved as it was themed around a common phrase used in both countries. The airline appreciates and respects the sentiments of the public, and in no way did it intend to offend any parties.”

Although the search continues for Flight MH370, the airline has respectfully moved on in their social media strategy by switching directions to a new campaign that seems to be more appropriate among its audience.

Utilizing the hashtag #KeepFlying, Malaysia Airlines expressed that its latest campaign is “a tribute to the people who will always be part of us and those who #keepflying high in the face of hardship.”

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