This week’s latest overseas crisis, the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, demonstrates how much effect democracy – or the lack of democracy – has on international PR. A story in the current issue of BloombergBusinessWeek, headlined “Why Malaysia Will Say Almost Nothing About the Missing Plane,” explains the “democracy effect” clearly.
The number one rule of crisis management is to communicate even when you don’t know the answers to questions that will be asked. This is PR 101. On the face of things, it’s rather shocking that an airline in a country that has the resources and relatively high standards of living that Malaysia has is not better able to manage a crisis. Western airlines have well-trained public relations advisors and staffs to cope with a crisis. However, there’s a western bias towards open communications and an Asian bias against it. One of the written comments below the BloombergBusinessWeek article summed up that attitude succinctly: “There is a saying that if a man doesn't know what he's talking about he should not talk about it. They [airline and government] didn't say much because they don't know much. That's not hiding things that's being cautious.”
However, it would have helped the airline and government if they had simply announced immediately whatever they knew for sure and at the same time announced that there were many unknowns they were investigating. The families of the missing passengers were not contacted until 15 hours after the airline realized the plane had disappeared. They must have been frantic about losing contact with their relatives on the plane and they’re understandably frustrated by the Malaysia Airlines and the Malaysian government’s lack of announcements about their investigation into the flight’s disappearance. Better communications with the families would have gone a long way towards preventing the incident a couple of days ago where angry relatives were hurling bottles of water at the official spokespeople.
But there was more than a cultural tilt towards silence going on in this situation. The government of Malaysia is well-renowned for its corrupt practices and its secrecy. As the BloombergBusinessWeek writer put it, “Although theoretically a democracy with regular, contested elections, Malaysia has been ruled since independence by the same governing coalition that has become known for its lack of transparency and disinterest—even outright hostility—toward the press and inquiring citizens…[and] has become intensely controlling of any information about potential terror threats while maintaining a liberal visa policy for arrivals.” The writer also noted that the ruling coalition in Malaysia has used corrupt means to stay in power and control the flow of information, and that there is a lack of accountability to the public by both the government and government-owned organizations such as Malaysia Airlines.
In other Asian countries like Japan and Korea, and even much poorer countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines, there is a much stronger democratic tendency for citizens to stand up to their governments, criticize governmental actions and demand transparency and accountability. This is not to say that democracy in any of those countries (or the U.S., for that matter) is anywhere near perfect or that corruption doesn’t exist in stronger democracies, because of course it does. But in a stronger democracy, the media are less likely to be timid about investigative reporting on events that the government might not want to make public, and government enterprises are held more accountable.
One other factor that contributes to the negative media coverage of the Malaysia Airlines crisis is the amount of political patronage -politically-motivated hiring - that goes on in government organizations in countries with high levels of corruption. Because this is widely reported as rampant in Malaysia, the international community has been quick to raise questions about the competence of government and airline officials in managing the situation. The New York Times wrote yesterday that “[Malaysia] is also an ethnically polarized society where talent often does not rise to the top of government because of patronage politics within the ruling party.” Several media reported over the last couple of days that the Chinese government has shown impatience over the lack of results by Malaysia in searching for the missing plane.
Both the airline, which ironically has a good record for safety, and the government are being criticized widely around the world now and are receiving just the kind of negative media coverage that any organization would want to avoid.
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