In this expansive interview with Mumbrella Asia editor Robin Hicks at the Festival of Media Asia, the Canadian talks about how the twin air disasters of MH370 and MH17 have changed the airline’s approach to communications, how these traumatic events affected him personally, and the plan to rebuild one of Malaysia’s most revered national brands.
Dean, you’ve been with Malaysia Airlines for just over two and half years. The last 12 months must have been particularly challenging.
The best way to start my story is from the beginning, when I joined the company. Coming into the role, there was a lot that needed to be done, and a lot of gaps that needed to be filled.
For example, we had not launched a brand thematic campaign for over 10 years.
The reality was that consumers in Asia had rapidly shifted in a world that had gone social and mobile. We needed to position ourselves better to take advantage of that, and engage with our audience where they had moved to.
That was the plan prior to March 2014.
What happened on 8 March was one of the most widely publicised, dramatic, confusing, mysterious events in recent history. One of the words often used to describe it in the media is “unprecedented”. And it was.
Never before had a modern aircraft, a Boeing 777, completely and utterly disappeared. The search that followed was also unprecedented in the scale and length of the operation; 26 different countries using a hundred 100 different ships and aircraft. So was the level of public fascination. Almost every day we are in the news, with different conspiracy theories emerging about what happened. Never before has any brand or story captured so many people’s imagination.
Tell us about the time when you first heard the news of the missing MH370 jet and how you briefed your agencies [Ogilvy & Mather is MAS’ creative agency, IPG Mediabrands handles media and Rally does social media].
We were made aware that flight MH370 had gone missing at 5.30am on a Saturday. By 9am, I’d given the direction to take down every Malaysia Airlines media property worldwide.
On Monday at 9am, I convened a meeting of all our agency partners and all my team with the objective of how we would rebuild the brand.
Taking everything down was easy. Building it back up was going to be much harder.
But we had no choice. When flight cancellations happen and advertising is taken off air, the financial impact is devastating for an airline. The adage “The easiest way to become a millionaire is to start out a billionaire then go into the airline business” is absolutely right.
Our job was to restart the commercial engine and find a way to make money – otherwise the company would have collapsed. There was no other way. We had to do it. We had to be successful.
One of the nice things about the process was that, from the first minute, there was universal sense of partnership. As much as it was a blow for us, it was also felt by our partners.
In the meeting, I said to the 50 people in the room: “What we do from here and how we manage the recovery from this will measure us and define us as a brand and as individuals. In your career you’ll never see anything like this. But how you deal with this will define you and us for many years to come.”
We did not get much sleep over the weeks that followed, trying to get creative with the most unlikely brief imaginable. We had to stand up and be counted.
How did you assess whether or not the brand should stop marketing after the news broke?
Everything happened in an era when people can share information, ask questions and challenge a brand you an instant. As a marketing and communications challenge, it was huge. It was like a mushroom cloud of attention – a bright white like was shone upon us. We were totally exposed. And it did not help that the media was reporting anything, regardless of source or no matter how crazy, just because they had to report something.
When that sort of thing happens, brands tend to freeze. Whichever way you move, you’ll be criticised; it’s paralysing. But the worst thing you can do is not move.
We used some of the tools we had created in the months prior. One was our web platforms. Before the beginning of 2014, we had one English language website. But we had created 22 different country sites, each with their own currency and own content. This gave us the ability to engage with people, supported by agency teams around the world, in local languages and with content relevant to them.
We took the 22 different sites and colour coded them – red, yellow and green – as part of a process we called “analyse and adjust”. We looked at the comments that were coming through in real time, and gauged what we should do based on that sentiment. If the colour was red, it meant stop all marketing. If it was yellow, we’d slow things down and continue with caution. If it was green, we’d keep going as normal.
We also had a business continuity plan for marketing in four different phases – from blackout to recovery. In the blackout phase, we stopped doing anything commercially linked. In the recovery phase, we had returned to normal.
With MH370, to go from blackout to recovery took seven weeks. With MH17, it took seven days.
This was driven by the fact that those two events were completely different. But also because we had learned so much more about how to deal with a situation of such magnitude the second time around.
The first lesson from MH370 was that, in the digital world, the expectation of the audience is immediacy. They want to know now. In real time.
In traditional crisis management, the opposite is what is desired. Most of the way these plans are articulated is driven by lawyers – what you should say, who would say it and how often is a communications protocol meant to mitigate against civil liability. The overall direction was to say as little as possible as infrequently as possible. The idea was to let time go on, and say at little as possible, so they could not hold you liable for anything you have said during the crisis.
But, in a world that wants immediate answers, we realised that was absolutely the wrong thing to do. So we established the capability, after consulting with our legal team, to be able to comment immediately where appropriate. If something was known to be true, could be validated 100 per cent or was already in the public domain, then we could comment on it. Within that context, if someone was expecting an answer from us, we could respond immediately.
We were able to demonstrate that if we managed the situation by being engaged, our ability to manage the story and the brand became so much easier. And it worked.
How did MH370 compare to MH17 in terms of the level of engagement from people in social media?
With MH370, in the space of three and a half weeks, we had received 58 million posts on Facebook and Twitter, with people mostly seeking information. But the reality then is the reality now. We still don’t know where the plane is.
With MH17, the reverse was true. Everyone knew what happened. From a Malaysia Airlines perspective, there was not much we could say. The answers people wanted were mostly political; oriented around what the Russians, Ukrainians or Americans were going to do.
The most common question we were getting was, how are you going to survive as a company?
So how did you respond to this question?
When MH17 was shot down, the feeling within Malaysia Airlines was universal shock. It was like taking a punch in the stomach. We were completely winded; 20,000 people suffered a big blow.
So, from a marketing perspective, we decided to send a message to ourselves internally – that was #StayStrong. It was intended for our own people, but it went viral. People were posting back to us, saying yes, Malaysia Airlines, stay strong, you didn’t deserve this.
We took that and we moved on to ‘Fly high’ and ‘Keep flying’. It has shaped our new direction. We recognised that it was the vehicle to get our message out, and to do so in an authentic, truthful way that leveraged a shared sense of grief and loss, together with a determination to carry on.
We felt that our customers were saying, I’m still with you, I still trust you. And we said, from a commercial standpoint, we’re going to honour that sentiment and we’re going to offer pricing and promotions to reflect that commitment, with the same Malaysian hospitality that we’re known for.
In the weeks that followed the disaster, there were a few marketing mistakes from Malaysia Airlines that drew attention to the two air disasters, such as a promo that asked people for their ‘bucket lists’ [things people choose to do before they die]? How did that happen?
It’s not an excuse. But the reality was that, any word we published would be reacted to in some way.
The bucket list was a promo designed months before MH370 and MH17 and was never meant to be advertised that way. We did not get a single customer who said it was a problem. It was the media that suggested it was an issue.
It’s never the case that everything will go 100 per cent how you expect it to. What is critical is how you deal with it. That’s what I believe we’re measured against. Within minutes of recognising that we made a mistake with the bucket list promotion, we reacted in the best way we could [the promo was removed from MAS’ website]. We were under a global spotlight. Should we have been scrutinised any closer as a brand? Probably. But at same time, it’s pretty hard to be perfect.
Tell us about how Malaysia Airlines took care of, and communicated with, the families affected by the missing jet crisis.
We had about 1,000 relatives in Beijing at the peak of the operation staying in three hotels. We had around 200 people to look after in KL. We gave them four meals a day. We handled their doctor and dentist appointments. It costs us one million dollars a day.
We supported them entirely from sun up until sun down with staff members we called care givers who were contactable 24 hours a day. These people were dealing with the kind of suffering and grief that it is impossible to imagine anyone going through. Although our staff had some training in how to help people with trauma, nothing could prepare them for this. For the most part they pulled through, and although there was all sorts of criticism of what the government should and should not have done, there was never any criticism of the support we provided.
There was some criticism, though, that relatives were provided with updates by text message rather than in person or with a phone call. This was seen as an insensitive way to communicate by some…
When we met with the relatives, we asked them how they would like us to communicate with them. We made a commitment that we’d tell them any news before they heard it on CNN or another news channel. Some relatives were hundreds of miles away, and a text message was the quickest way we could reach them. We couldn’t stop the media from reporting the situation, and it would have been far worse for those affected to get information from the media rather from us.
The MH370 plane is still missing. Are you continuing to stay in contact with the relatives of the missing people one year on?
We were housing people for seven weeks in those hotels. After that time, there was no point in keeping them there, as there was no new information we had to provide. But when there is, we will provide it.
We will continue to work through all the balance of what is required to deal with the situation. But you can never successfully really manage all of that. The reality is, these people lost people who were close to them. We cannot do what they want us to do, which is bring those people back. But we can honour a commitment we made, which is to give any new information or bring closure to any outstanding issues, legal or otherwise.
Typically, when an airline experiences a loss of life case, it takes about seven years from beginning to end to return to business as usual – and that’s best-case scenario. Our situation is unique. What happened to MH370 is a mystery. Your guess is as good as mine as to where the plane is or what happened to it. We want to know, but we cannot say for sure that we’ll ever find out.
There was a lot of talk in the press about Malaysia Airlines completely rebranding and changing its name after the MH370 and MH17 disasters. Was that ever a possibility and could it happen in the future?
A large part of that was driven by earlier reports on CNN, and by dialogue from so-called experts. They were saying that there was no way an airline could suffer two crises like this. Surely they’d have to rebrand, the ‘experts’ were saying.
After that, I had about 150 different agencies from around the world saying, if you want some help, give us a call.
There are two elements to this. First is the awareness of the Malaysia Airlines brand. Prior to MH370, globally Malaysia Airlines’ brand awareness was in the low single digits. But after MH370 and MH17 it is 86 per cent worldwide. The name is now in the range of Coke and Pepsi. That kind of awareness takes decades and billions of dollars in investment to build. To abandon that, from a commercial marketing perspective, would be a tragically bad mistake to make.
Secondly, millions rallied around the brand and embraced the notion of Fly High and Stay Strong. So much so, that if we were to rebrand, we would not be honouring that message, and we would not be leveraging that as a springboard.
And if we rebranded, what would that say about the company? Malaysia Airlines has always been recognised as a premium full-service carrier and a national icon. The prime minister has said that this is something that needs to be preserved, as it is part of the fabric of Malaysian culture and society. What makes us good, what is engrained in our character and our culture, is Malaysian hospitality. It’s one of the only things that makes us genuinely different as an airline. It’s what makes us who we are. And we wouldn’t want to disrupt that promise.
Were any of the ideas sent to you by agencies workable?
No. We never got that far. Sure, the idea of a brand overall touched all of our imaginations, but it was never a serious consideration.
How long do you feel that it will take Malaysia Airlines to restore trust in it as an airline brand after what has happened over the last 12 months?
The short answer is, we have millions of people who are already unified in saying we feel for you and we trust you. But we still have questions that we haven’t answered yet.
We need to tell them more about what we’re doing to move forward. We need to continue to show how committed we are as a brand. Time will slowly help us restore confidence and trust. But we have to do more, faster – from a marketing perspective – to support that message.
This won’t be about cheap flights to Bali. It will be about images and content that remind people that we’re still strong and healthy, and we’re moving forward.
But presumably, with the state of Malaysia Airlines’ finances, your marketing budget is very constrained?
You won’t ever meet a marketing guy ever who tells you he has what he needs. In our case, this is magnified to a greater degree. The company’s finances were not in good shape before MH370 or MH17, and are not better since. None of our competitors have anywhere near the same degree of challenge that we have, and our financial resources are nowhere near what we need. So we’re trying to be as creative and as efficient as possible.
This goes back to the reason I was brought in – to bring about a fundamental shift from traditional to digital media. One of the things that the digital marketing environment allows is for you to be targeted and precise. It also is an environment in which your audience will put you to the test. For the most part, the audience is saying ‘I believe you, I think you’re being authentic’. The key thing for us is not to take that trust for granted, and be 100 per cent consistent with what we’re doing. We could negate any progress we’ve made if we’re not authentic. Authenticity is the guiding proposition for us.
You’ve been at the airline for two and half years, which is a relatively long stint for a marketer. When will you feel that your job is done? Aren’t you tired of such a stressful job?
For me, I’ve gone beyond being tired. I guess you reach a different zone after working for 20 hours a day for seven weeks. Your body and mind reacts differently; you acclimatise to long hours. After that, if it’s 18 hours a day, that’s peanuts.
I came to Malaysia Airlines on a two-year plus one contract, and I’m reaching the end of that now. We have a new CEO [Christoph Mueller, the man credited with turning around Aer Lingus, who started in January]. But we haven’t had a conversation about what happens next. For me, the job’s not done yet. Some of the things we have done helped us survive, but I feel as if there’s unfinished business to do. We’re 60 per cent there, but the decision on whether I’ll still be here is not mine to make.
What is your own personal experience that stands out from the last 12 months?
Right after the MH370 situation began, the airline went into code red mode and the airline management moved to the Emergency Operation Centre at KLIA [Kuala Lumpur International Airport]. In the EOC, every department is represented at a senior level, and it operates 24 hours a day in shifts. We’d do our regular jobs for a few hours, and do a 12-hour shift in the EOC.
The shifts were intense, and we’d have to get out of there occasionally and go for a walk. I would encounter staff going to meet a flight, and one of first things they’d say was “I knew the people on that plane”. The average tenure of Malaysia Airlines employees is 27 years. These staff knew the crew on the missing plane as well as they know their own families, and would inevitably break down when they talked of them.
In those early days, no one knew what to believe and our staff had the same fear of getting on a plane as anyone else, even after 20 years of standing at the gate, greeting passengers and welcoming them on board.
Even after the crisis started, we were flying 400 flights a day, carrying 50,000 passengers a day, and those same staff were professional enough to carry on and do their jobs.
These people are what I remember about the experience most. They say a lot about the character and the culture of Malaysia Airlines. It’s not the uniform or the satay, it’s a collection of people that make the brand. They represent who we are and the character of what Malaysia Airlines really stands for.