INTERVIEW: Role of Public Relations Practitioners During Crisis

Rebranding Malaysian Airlines by changing its name can tarnish the image of Malaysia.
“Rebranding Malaysian Airlines by changing its name can tarnish the image of Malaysia.” – Krishna Athal

INTERVIEWER: In a crisis situation, media are powerful and how the press responds to a given situation has a great deal to do with how the public responds. So, what should PR practitioners do when they speak to the media during a crisis?

KRISHNA ATHAL: The mantra is simple: Be Quick. Be Accurate. Be Consistent.

Response time is at peak for a PR practitioner during a crisis. The case has to be prepared overnight, keeping in mind the external scanning result of the organisation, the strategic agenda of the organisation and ultimately the agenda of the selected media. ‘Media framing’ is a prevalent approach for a PR practitioner while speaking to the media during crisis. Media framing, I believe, is a very important skill for a PR practitioner to tackle crisis. Political parties and governments have often been strong at framing agendas during crisis – many times at the expense of the minorities; one example is how Iran is unable to “frame” the story about nuclear power – it is always associated with seeking to gain nuclear bombs.

As you would agree, PR is a profession which understands how to deploy discourse on behalf of organisations and can frame stories while addressing to the public during crisis through media. PR practitioners play a key role in the maintenance and transformation of discourse. Discourse and framing go along together. Discourse consists of arguments deployed by the organisation during crisis, including messages, text, vision, brands and reputation to help “frame” an agenda. Media has great power to frame agendas and journalists have great framing skills. Thus, the PR guy has to anticipate everything, by seeking to build a strong and coherent argument or discourse on behalf of his client. He has to frame the discourse most effectively.

INTERVIEWER: Which media is the most suitable today for crisis management?

KRISHNA ATHAL: A press conference (where all types of newsrooms are invited), accompanied by an immediate press release from the organisation.

INTERVIEWER: Between traditional and new media, which is the most appropriate means to communicate to in the initial phase of the crisis? Why?

KRISHNA ATHAL: As I’ve said, I would go for traditional media to tackle the initial phase of a crisis.

During a crisis, the public at large wants to ensure that the organisation “gets it,” cares, and is capable to sort out the problem. Let’s imagine the setting of the press conference – a room full of aggressive journalists who are here to face your spokesperson. They literally have the freedom to ask whatever they want, by first evaluating the various questions asked by their colleagues – unlike the setting of one-on-one interview – and then attacking back more uncompromisingly.

Hence the PR practitioner should strictly not entertain a press conference unless he is well rehearsed (very frequent during crisis) and have the confidence to stay on message, whilst potentially fielding all manner of enquiries. The biggest advantage of a press conference is that it is a control mechanism: the PR guy controls it by knowing when and where to hold it on what he says.

INTERVIEWER: For organisations, what are the challenges and advantages in managing a crisis through the Internet?

KRISHNA ATHAL: Beyond the advantage of reaching a massive audience at a particular time, the internet can also be a PR practitioner’s ultimate nightmare during crisis, as it is now often used by adversaries to spread negative messages far and wide instantly. These often damaging and misleading messages sometimes have more appeal than those being portrayed by the PR practitioner. Moreover, their sources are often hard to trace and there may be little that can be done to control or balance them, or to remove them from the internet.

Another challenge for PR practitioners while managing a crisis online is that social media is characterised by two-way communication, interactivity, transmission efficiency and decentralisation of power. This finally leads to an opportunity to table alternative views, thus promoting interaction, discussion and networking. Dealing with pressure from social media has forced multinationals to change policy.

Whether LGBT or an Israel boycott meeting is the subject of interest, social media platforms can bring together activists to empower and connect individuals all over the world. Social networks such as Facebook provide options to create events, mass e-invitation, sharing, and calendars which streamline communication and facilitate rapid responses to mobilisation. One example was the protests which were rapidly staged in many countries around the world to stop the commitment of troops to the war in Iraq.

As a PR professional, I would strongly advise organisations to avoid using social media to manage a crisis at its initial stage. For this particular situation, we have more harms than benefits if we opt to distribute information online.

INTERVIEWER: How did your role as PR practitioner evolve with the evolution of new media?

KRISHNA ATHAL: What was not long ago known as “new media” has become “everyday media”. Today the intense attention of publics towards social media has made PR practitioners put themselves abreast to the wide range of digital media channels to manage their organisations. Irrefutably, the internet has considerably changed the way PR practitioners spread out information, deal with crises, manage issues and interact with key audiences.

However communications professionals are also technologically savvy in monitoring as well as using such media: on the one hand, public relations is an industry that is more empowered than ever before with new communication tools, but so too are the individuals and publics it works with, or is in opposition to. The days of sending messages out and ignoring the consequences are well behind us. In an age where even schoolchildren have Smartphones, social networks are growing in high popularity. And as PR practitioners, we cannot afford to lack behind. Instead, we are trend setter.

INTERVIEWER: How engaged are you as PR professional within social media? Is social media incorporated in your crisis plans?

KRISHNA ATHAL: Although most of social media engagement comes from consumer-facing companies, the online platforms have not left behind celebrities and company executives. Online communications has reached a level of maturity by going beyond the “connecting people” approach.

Many international organisations use PR to endorse their services and/or products; while others use public relations to show social responsibility. Notwithstanding, others propose PR programs to connect with supporters, sponsors, investors and even employees. As a consequence of these numerous purposes, my company’s engagement in social media is very firm, and for sure caters for crisis management.

Furthermore, as the Director of PR in my company, I ensure to engage myself in various social media networks with the intent to stay closer to people, and to study trends.

INTERVIEWER: How exactly do you use and rely on the different social media tools in a crisis situation?

KRISHNA ATHAL: I don’t use social media tools to address any crisis at its initial stage.

INTERVIEWER: How well do you believe the Malaysian Airlines handled the MH 370 crisis situation?

KRISHNA ATHAL: The MH370 case is a typical crisis scenario which has resulted in Malaysian Airlines’ loss of reputation and decrease in the profit margin. One of the main aspect to deal with the situation was to consider the impact of “public opinion”. For PR practitioners, public opinion matters as it is changing frequently. Public opinion is dynamic, fluid and shape-shifter, which explains why PR is always focused on change.

Malaysian Airlines had to react immediately for this crisis but somehow it had failed to do so. It started with a press communiqué, and till they secured communicable information, CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya held a media conference to inform the public about the incident and how investigations together with the government will be undertaken.

In terms of public opinion, keeping publics informed and being as transparent as possible, are the best form of defence. Transparency could be at its most valuable and effective when things go wrong. Legitimacy and social media are two of the most discussed agendas in the world of PR. Thus, public opinion influenced these agendas for Malaysian Airlines during the disappearance of the MH370.

INTERVIEWER: What is your opinion about Malaysian Airlines communicating air crash news by text messages?

KRISHNA ATHAL: If we consider the Theory of Communicative Action of Habermas (1984), it is an undeniable fact that Malaysian Airlines is operating in the “public sphere”, where individuals come together in open public institutions to debate matters of public importance. After the incident, many discussions took place concerning the air travel safety. And the contributions of various international newsrooms and stakeholders were exemplary.

The communicative rationality of Malaysian Airlines involved “rational-critical discourse” where the force of better argument alone moved discussants towards greater understanding and consensus. MA’s CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya met the press overtly at Kuala Lumpur airport to have reasoned and spontaneous exchange, hence endorsing equality, respect and sincerity regarding the happening, as relevant to the discourse.

According to theorist Foucault (1980), the public generally perceives the CEO of a company as the most powerful person to be the spokesperson to deliver during crisis. This has also contributed in enhancing the crisis communication of Malaysian Airlines when the spokesperson was none than Ahmad Jauhari Yahya.

Prior to the press conference, the company had issued text messages to announce the news, but this is justified since they didn’t have any proper information themselves to address the various publics live.

INTERVIEWER: Which incident was worst in terms of crisis communication – MH 370 or MH 17? Why?

KRISHNA ATHAL: I think communication to public for MH17 has been so appalling that public, by and large, has formed a series of stories on its own. When the event happened, the news spread out first on Twitter before Malaysian Airlines was able to comment. Furthermore, the politics which was involved between Ukraine and Russia for this happening made the public stay away from it. The company was widely criticized for the handling of the crisis of MH17 and its insensitive-seeming interactions with victims’ families.

INTERVIEWER: Malaysian Airlines has been considering a name change after MH 370 and MH 17 disaster. Do you think this is a good strategy, why might rebranding not help in this situation?

KRISHNA ATHAL: Rebranding, whether it involves slipping a product’s name or just undertaking a campaign to shift the perceptions associated with a brand, is not an uncommon strategy in PR today. Some companies have had great luck reinventing themselves, but I’m afraid that Malaysian Airlines would be enough lucky if it rebrands itself. Air travel is a very sensitive business; you can’t fool people since you are dealing with life and death issues.

Public relations is about reputation – the result of what you do, what you say and what others say about you. Many PR practitioners consider theorist Benoit’s Image Restoration Theory which posits five primary inclusive strategies in crisis communication: denial, evading of responsibility, reducing the offensiveness, corrective action, and mortification.

What I propose for Malaysian Airlines brand restoration is “corrective action” – build trust, reliance and confidence in its stakeholders (clients, shareholders and staff) over time. In addition, changing the name of the national flyer can tarnish the image of Malaysia.

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