THE BLOG

Torment, Anger and Poor Communicating

03/17/2014 05:04 pm ET | Updated May 16, 2014

As we enter the second week of the search for Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370, we are hearing more and more questions raised about the ability of the Malaysian authorities to effectively communicate information surrounding the tragedy of the missing Boeing 777.

It has become increasingly clear to many that poor communicating has compounded the agony and torment faced by all those who continue to fear for their loved ones.

And that has raised some very loud voices.

In an Associated Press article filed out of Beijing just this Sunday, Louise Watt reported:

"Anxious relatives have thronged a temporary Malaysia Airlines office set up in a Beijing hotel and accuse Malaysian officials and the carrier of withholding information."

"'Some of the information released by the Malaysian government and airline turns out to be true, some turns out to be false,' said Nan Jinyan, a woman from Shanghai whose brother-in-law was aboard the flight. 'I believe they are still deciding which information to release and which isn't convenient to release right now.'"

Only the day before, Xinhua News Agency published a "Commentary" that was even more cutting and direct:

"And due to the absence -- or at least lack -- of timely authoritative information, massive efforts have been squandered, and numerous rumors have been spawned, repeatedly racking the nerves of the awaiting families."

"Given today's technology, the delay smacks of either dereliction of duty or reluctance to share information in a full and timely manner. That would be intolerable."

International politics and national differences aside, it certainly seems as if the Malaysian authorities have been too slow in coming to grips with a basic principle in handling any crisis: especially while questions remain and information is still unfolding, trust and confidence are critical.

Like countless other crises, the lesson is the same: parallel to the investigation, there must be a systematic and well-organized communication effort or else confidence and trust are lost.

Without it, everyone suffers even more. The crescendo of despair mounts. Those affected feel ignored and, in turn, disrespected. They may feel deceived, even when not. They retaliate with anger. They are reluctant to even try to understand that much more time may be needed to sort out fact from fiction and discover the answers.

Hostility and tension mount.

For the families and loved ones of the passengers and crew who were onboard that Boeing 777 when it went missing, frustration has made matters so much worse. We hear it in the voices of all those who gather in the Beijing and Kuala Lumpur briefing rooms, hoping to get some credible information. We see the torment in their faces while they wait. And we feel the despair in their cries as they call out with questions that still go unanswered.

Now, fairly or unfairly, the actions of the Malaysian authorities come under an even harsher microscope.

All the while, the media -- thriving on controversy and drama -- become even more voracious in the race to break news. Their network of experts grows, as do theories, opinions, and speculation. The discussion overflows with possibilities.

Of course, social media haven't missed a beat. For example, #MH370 on Twitter has been seeing as many as twenty new postings a minute from around the world.

In the end, drama overtakes fact. Reason and calm are pushed to the wayside.

And no one is served well.

The inevitable is a dramatic loss of trust and damage to reputation that will take years to rebuild.

What we all instinctively know -- but too often may shy away from -- is that the toughest test of reputation is in a moment of crisis. That is the time when probing is the harshest and media scrutiny sheds the brightest light.

The answer is that we must always be prepared with a crisis plan and with the discipline to carry it out.

After all, it never is "if" a crisis will arise, but rather simply "when."

It seems that, at best, the Malaysian authorities had the barest outline of a crisis communication plan. Realistically, they weren't ready. And when a week ago they needed to start by bringing together the Malaysian airline, government, aviation authorities, investigators, police and regulators, they must have even found that difficult to do.

Moreover at the outset, when others would have clearly advised the Malaysian authorities to reach far and wide and ask for help, bringing in the world's finest authorities and most experienced investigators and professionals from other countries, chances are they thought they could "go it alone."

"What's past is prologue" Shakespeare wrote in The Tempest. The Malaysian authorities should take that advice and move forward with an aggressive plan for communicating with the families and loved ones of those who were on board.

After all, trust, confidence, and reputation are at stake.