It was painful to watch the anguished families of Flight MH 370 as they awaited news about their loved ones. The news they got trickled out piecemeal fashion and was often wrong. Many people spoke on the airlines behalf and more often than not statements were contradictory. As time dragged on frustrations grew and families became aggressive in their quest for answers.

The bumbling response by airline representative was the major culprit in public perceptions. The airline did not speak with confidence or a unified voice. Their answers seemed to be based on unconfirmed reports or stonewalling. Public confidence in their efforts took a deep dive after the first few days. Contrast this with the Australian PM who put his government’s resources to assist in locating the aircraft. He was confident, explained actions clearly – giving hope with a dose of reality. Though all efforts failed, the victim’s families and the world at large believed him.

In 1982, cyanide laced capsules of Tylenol were put on shelves of pharmacies and retailers in the Chicago area. Since the tampered bottles came from different factories, and all deaths were in the Chicago area, tampering at the factory was ruled out. Police believed that the culprit had entered various stores and put the tainted bottles on shelves. As soon as the Tylenol link was established, Johnson and Johnson, stopped production and advertising. Even though the problem was local, the company issued a nationwide recall of Tylenol capsules. They also advertised in all media advising people not to consume Tylenol or any products containing acetaminophen. Their timely action and forthright manner ensured the damage was limited.

The major difference between these two tragic events was communications. Malaysian airlines spoke with multiple voices without any clear cut strategy. Johnson and Johnson acted fast, spoke with a unified voice and did not hesitate to incur the cost of a nationwide recall when only Chicago was affected. Their market share went from 35% before the incident to 8%. However within a year, Tylenol recaptured the market share they had enjoyed. The public appreciated their efforts and honesty and rewarded them with reposed confidence.

The moral of this is a company has to have a clear cut plan for communications when an emergency strikes. The plan should include not only communications to the outside world but also to employees. It pays to be prepared.

Effective Handling of Disasters – Lessons from Tylenol Poisoning and Malaysian Airlines