Lessons From Ethiopian Airlines On Using Social Media to Manage a Crisis

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By Tito Mwangi

A few months  ago, a quiet Sunday morning changed when a tweet from Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s came in shattering all the seeming silence of an easy Sunday  at 10.50am (EAT). It read:

“The Office of the PM, on behalf of the government and people of Ethiopia, would like to express its deepest condolences to the families of those that have lost their loved ones on Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 on regular scheduled flight to Nairobi, Kenya this morning.”

What followed next was a very precise communication strategy that has left many in the communication world applauding the team behind the crisis communication around the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 that claimed the lives of all on board.

PR professionals don’t need to be intimidated by social media during a crisis. The basic principles of effective communication have not changed. Communicators now just have more channels to consider and have to react to the concerns in ‘real-time’.

Will there be an overload of queries due to the different social media platforms available? ABSOLUTELY YES, however communicators need to take charge and show leadership that can be trusted to give timely and reliable updates in any crisis situation.

In the Ethiopian airlines case, the Airline commenced all communication immediately after the prime minister’s tweet they were very responsive, very composed and very consistent while employing a very simple strategy.

All communication was channeled through social media which clearly stated the vital role that social media can and is playing in the communication field.

REGRET, REASON, REMEDY

Regardless of the event, senior managers and spokes persons of every organization and company should be prepared to respond using a format that has worked perfectly over the years to wade through turbulent times both from a personal and corporate level.

Regarding flight 302, at the earliest opportunity in the very first communication during the crisis, The Prime minister’s office prepared and issued a public statement that addressed the situation,

“The Office of the PM, on behalf of the government and people of Ethiopia, would like to express its deepest condolences to the families of those that have lost their loved ones on Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 on regular scheduled flight to Nairobi, Kenya this morning.”

Regret:

Apologize, clearly and directly, to those affected, their families and the community. This was echoed by the airlines which took charge of all communication thereafter while also clearly chatting the way forward on how communication would then be done moving forward. The airline came up with a periodic accident bulletin format.

The Public was not left to wonder as information was supplied on time and this helped in avoiding speculations, distortions and disruptions of the social media. Ethiopian Airlines managed to project in the strongest term that people matter most to them than business. They responded to emotions first and not the technical facts. They communicated more about the deceased and about reassuring relatives and friends of the dignity of their loved ones.

Reason

First, they stated that the airplane was brand new delivered to them by Boeing in October 2018; second, without getting into detail or blame game, they mentioned the plane involved to be Boeing 737–8 MAX. Third, the Pilot involved was senior, very experienced with cumulative flight time of more than 8000 hours and with a commendable performance. Moreover, they hinted that the flight had just arrived safely from Johannesburg before its fateful trip to Nairobi.

This key information tactically distanced the Ethiopian Airline with the direct public attack over the accident. They at least silenced the immediate speculation that the accident was caused by either the inexperienced pilot or poor state of aircraft.

With such assurance and composure, the debate online shifted to discuss the accident in connection with the previous similar plane that took place 5 month earlier in Indonesia. The airline has been smart enough not to get at this debate at all. The only part they spoke about the airplane is to assure public that they have formed a joint investigation team that involved industry wide experts from both home and abroad.

In the days that followed the airline defended its safety track record over the years emphasizing on the qualification of its well trained crew .

Reform:

The game changer in all this was the decision to ground all of their Boeing 737–800 Max along side many other countries such as Morocco, Mauritania, the EU, China, USA,UK and Australia. These responses to the accident shifted the conversation and debate.

The airline indeed deserves recognition on how it managed to handle and engage with public through the social media. Ethiopian Airlines did not respond to attempts by some Western media houses trying to taint their image perhaps in favor of Boeing. They capitalized on sympathy across the world, solidarity from Africa and testimonies of those who flew with Ethiopian Airline who stood witness that despite the accident, things were back to normal and on course.

Every effective communication strategy has its own objectives. During a crisis one of the objective, is to neutralize the situation mostly the public opinion. No doubt, the shift of conversation from safety, training and crew qualification of Ethiopia Airline to the safety of Boeing aircrafts responded well with the Ethiopian Airlines crisis communication strategy.

SOURCES- Twitter, Ethiopian Airlines, CNN,BBC, Eric Dezenhall, Janet falk

 

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