Geoffrey Stackhouse, Managing Director, Clarity Solutions
In the tragedy and confusion that surrounds the heartbreaking loss of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 with 298 passengers and crew onboard, it is impossible - and wrong - to analyse the communication flows dispassionately.
But as I follow this tragedy and the way it is reported, I am be mindful of the different voices I am hearing which are influencing the debate at a very high level and shaping the issues media report.
Because what media report becomes public perception and, over time, the accepted truth, what Government and Industry leaders say and don't say is even more critical. It is a moment when one view can shape world opinion so it's worth paying close attention.
Aside from the political leaders, the most influential and strategic commentator I've seen is Tony Tyler, CEO of the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
Tyler is working both hard and smart on this crisis.
He is passionate and respectful, but above all his comments are strong, consistent and strategic. Not surprisingly his message is getting lots of airtime, all in support of the Airline industry.
When commentators suggested MAS kept flying over the Ukraine to cut costs, Tyler’s insight and his powerful analogy headed off the blame and redirected some of the outrage:
“Airlines depend on governments and air traffic control authorities to advise which air space is available for flight, and they plan within those limits. It is very similar to driving a car. If the road is open, you assume that it is safe. If it’s closed you find an alternate route.”
That one comment refocused the anger on the Ukrainian Government for not closing their skies and away from the airlines for flying over a war zone.
That’s the power of an industry body. Usually seen as an independent third party, they speak at a higher level about industry issues.
It was impossible for MAS to defend itself personally on the issue of route selection, particularly since other airlines had made the same choice. Without IATA MAS, and the industry in general, would be facing a lot more criticism.
And that’s the correct role of the Industry body.
In contrast, ‘Astroturfing’, or setting up a fake ‘independent’ body, is unethical, illegal and extremely foolish. Big Tobacco got hammered for spending millions of dollars funding the Alliance of Australian Retailers to stop plain packaging being introduced.
And big developers have also been caught funnelling dollars to these pseudo outrage groups to lobby for and against developments.
Reporting third party opinion is a critical part of the media’s crisis coverage. Reporters need opinion and reaction from credible informed sources who are not directly involved in the crisis.
Because you can’t make friends in a crisis, you need to identify and connect with influential industry bodies when things are going well.
In a crisis keep them informed about what you are doing because they need accurate information on hot issues when speaking to media. When they are speaking on the issue keep silent and let them get on with it.