MIAMI — The fate of Malaysian Airlines  Flight 370 has seized the world headlines. The coverage, with its inherent drama, mystery and tragedy, has placed such vital international events as the Russian annexation of Crimea and involvement in the Ukraine into the background. Other major events in Iran and North Korea, which ordinarily would have major coverage, no longer cover page 1 in the world’s papers nor the global reach of television and the internet. Cable news, in particular CNN, has so sharply focused on the fate of 370 that under the heading of new developments we have a litany of various theories that if anything make the events of the flight even more confusing and uncertain.

For the past weeks government officials, members of the media, and countless “talking heads” have offered continually changing scenarios of what happened to flight 370. Until now, reports have raised hope that the plane will be located, though no leads have pulled through. The families of the passengers on the flight, as well as the public, have continued to ride an emotional roller coaster as they seek answers to a continuing mystery.

I will not pride my own scenario of what happened. Like others, I have been often overwhelmed with conflicting analysis of what happened and I further lack the aviation expertise to deal with a most complex series of events. But even now there are tragic lessons to be learned even as the search continues.

At the outset, despite the advances in crisis management and crisis communication in the airline industry to deal with disasters, the basic principles of crisis management have to a larger degree not been followed and that has execrated the situation. Understandable Malaysian Airlines has had to cope with a great deal of conflicting information, but it has also for a variety of reasons, not gotten ahead of the story. Its officials have essentially reacted to numerous conflicting official and unofficial sources .To make matters even worse its senior executives and corporate communicators have not acted quickly to give timely meaningful information to the passengers and the broader audience.

This does not mean that Malaysian Airlines was or is in a position to give a full account of what transpired, that remains to be seen. But officials have acted too slowly to provide initial information and have not spoken with a single voice. Nor has the Malaysia officials who through a combination of not having sufficient information as the tragedy unfolds or because of a reluctance to share information, based in part on national security concerns in a troubled region.

The international response regrettably has been too slow. The major governments involved in the search process have also not shared information, in part because they think their military capabilities and assets could be compromised by providing information not only to the public but particularly to potential regional adversaries. The problem the collection and dissemination of information has been greatly complicated by the fact that increasingly it is an alternative media universe, not governments and news services that are shaping the perception of what has happened to Flight 370. The shaping of perception, intentional or unintentional has and will become a major factor in generating rumors and misinformation about future tragedies and this shaping may increasingly guide the mainstream media in its desire to get the story.

Looking beyond the current tragedy we readily see that it is not beyond reason to think that the reaction of the public to The War of the Worlds radio program and the plot of the movie  Tail of the Dog that created a non-existing war for political purposes will become even more common given the almost instantaneous penetration of the regular and alternative media to acquire global audiences. We must also recognize that technologically the media can, for better or for worse, create the perception of an event either to essentially beat their competitors to their own made interpretation of a story of their own making. Worse yet, governments and non-state actors can also create their own stories for political purposes. We are and increasingly witnessing “the emergence of  virtual terrorism – the willingness of terrorist  (and others) to magnify their threat capabilities by altering the perception of the people watching through the use of the internet and other forms of communication.” Stephen Sloan, Terrorism: The Present Threat in Context, Berg Publishers, 2006,  page 109. Malaysian Flight 370 does not appear to fall into that category, but the warning is there for those who must handle future crisis both in and beyond the aviation industry.

About the Author

Dr Stephen Sloan consults on doctrine, strategy and policies associated with combating terrorism. He also specializes in counter insurgency and peacekeeping operations both in the United States and overseas. Sloan is the author of 13 books and numerous articles. He is presently a Senior Fellow of the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism and on the Editorial Advisory Board of the Joint Special Operations University. Professor Sloan is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and Professor Emeritus from the University of Oklahoma.

He currently lives in Coconut Grove, Florida.

(Credits: Airways Airchive)
(Credits: Airways Airchive)