Condolence ad: did Malaysia Airlines do the right thing?

It’s the brief no advertiser wants to issue, but Malaysia Airlines took out a full page ad in early general news of The Australian last week offering “Our Deepest Condolences”.

It was a sombre ad set on a black background, well executed by the airlines advertising agency. However, the problem is not with style of the ad, but its timing and the antipathy it could create, instead of the sympathy it wanted to express.

Two weeks had passed following the disappearance of flight MH370, during which the airline was widely criticised for its communication with both the press and with grieving families of the plane’s passengers.

Considering the circumstances, is there really a right way to do an ad like this?

Red Agency and Havas PR managing director James C. Wright believes it is a case of “too little, too late” for the airline, after its previous communications to families of passengers via text messages drew widespread criticism.

“If you take an ad out like this you usually have to have a basis of credibility about how you’ve handled the crisis, otherwise it can seem disingenuous or mistimed,” he said.

“If everyone had agreed they’d done a good job of communicating with families of passengers involved already, I think it would be a different story.”

Spinach co-founder and creative director Frank Morabito said it would be the one brief that nobody wants to receive from a client.

“At times like this it’s how a company acts, and not just the things it says, that really defines it and in a way, reveals its heart and soul.

“I know they’re trying to show sympathy but I’m not sure this ad achieves that effectively.

“I think it actually reveals more about the fact that the company was totally unprepared for this kind of thing.”

The full-page ad by Malaysia Airlines.

The full-page ad by Malaysia Airlines.

Mr Morabito suggested that rather than addressing loved ones of passengers, the ad may be talking more to management, staff and their current customers. “Does it really reassure current customers? I’m not sure it does,” he said.

“Does it help staff in some way, let them know that they’re a compassionate group in some way? Possibly.”

In this situation, the print ad was a wise choice, he said.

“Full page ads, while they are old school in this way, can be quite effective, particularly if your target audience – and I note the newspaper it was in – is in many ways your customers, management and staff.

“If they wanted to come out and make a statement, they could have done something on social media, but they’ve been criticised on social media so it’s a really difficult place for them to be in right now.

“So in many ways, print is probably a safer place to be.”

He said he did not know if a condolence ad could be done better – except perhaps to not do it at all. “The way the airline responded originally with texting passengers’ relatives has probably put the ad in a dark place.”

Mr Wright said the airline’s communications strategy was extremely confused.

“There was a huge amount of speculation that wasn’t quashed in the days and weeks after, and there were lots of different voices within the Malaysia Airlines team creating all sorts of confusion from a communications perspective.

“It’s really important to speak with one voice, to present a united front,” he said.

“It’s hard to communicate with a large group simultaneously and you would think there would be a personal conversation with each and every family.

“There should have been people on the phone calling these families, rather than a text, and putting in their genuine thoughts.”

He identified three key rules in a crisis situation: “Talk about what you do know; admit what you don’t know; and say what you’re doing and going to be doing.”

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