Learning From Fly-SAX’s Flawed Crisis Communications Response

It has been two months since a Fly-SAX plane crashed in the Abadare mountain range north of Kenya’s capital Nairobi, which tragically led to the death of all passengers and crew on board. Although the crash faded relatively quickly from the news, important lessons can be drawn from analyzing the crisis communications response. 

This crisis is particularly interesting because it involved multiple stakeholders such as Fly-SAX and its parent company Fly 540, the Ministry of Transport, the Ministry of Defence, the Kenya Wildlife Service, the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA), and the Kenya Red Cross. 

Using a framework called the 3Rs (readiness, response, recovery), we uncover several shortcomings in how the various stakeholders reacted to the crash. Given the significance of social media in Kenya, we focus our analysis particularly on how the crisis was handled on Twitter, which is used around the world for newsworthy events.

Readiness

Information sharing between the various stakeholders seemed to be uncoordinated, as shown by when the various organizations reported on the incident. Nation Breaking News was the first to tweet about the missing plane at 9:05pm on June 7th, 2018. This was followed shortly after by a tweet from the KCAA acknowledging that flight controllers had lost contact with the plane around 5pm. Fly-SAX was the last to report on the incident when it tweeted a press release at 10:20pm that said the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) had lost contact with the aircraft at 5:20pm.

This timeline indicates flaws in the crisis response protocols and possibly a lack of prior scenario training. More importantly, it is inexcusable that Fly-SAX was the last party to issue a statement, which shows that it clearly was unprepared for any type of crisis. It is best practice to engage during a crisis within the Golden Hour, i.e. no more than one hour after a crisis situation has erupted. How an organization reacts within the Golden Hour often determines how a crisis unfolds and how perceptions are shaped for the stakeholders involved. 

It is also worth noting that the airplane’s Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) did not deploy and is believed to have been faulty, according to an article by The Standard.  Experts argued that this could have been easily detected during an inspection of the plane. Had the ELT functioned properly, then rescue personnel could have found the wreckage quicker thus avoiding rumors and speculation during the ensuing four-day search. 

Response

Being honest and accurate with information you provide is one of the cardinal rules in crisis communications. Of all the stakeholders involved in this tragedy, none of them offered timely and accurate information. 

This was especially true for Fly-SAX, which should have been the information gatekeeper and proactively engaging the media. Even the families of the victims were often forced to turn to the media for information instead of receiving it directly from the airline.

Although the airline formed a response center at Wilson Airport, where the company is based, other stakeholders were not co-located there. It is thus no surprise that instances arose where stakeholder released contradictory information such as when the Fly-SAX chairman and KCAA’s director general gave different accounts of why the aircraft was rerouted to JKIA.  

To add to the confusion, earlier media accounts apportioned blame to JKIA air traffic controllers for diverting the plane due to ‘bad weather at Wilson airport’ stating that the airport did not have necessary technology to help navigate through such conditions. 

Later reports, however, indicate that the plane was diverted at Fly-SAX’s request. Apparently, some passengers aboard were due to catch a flight at JKIA and were at risk of running late. Such revelations will undoubtedly dent the trust between the airline and the public.

KCAA, for its part, did not do well to respond to allegations that the plane was faulty and that some would-be passengers had earlier opted out of the flight due to safety concerns.  In a press briefing, the Cabinet Secretary for Transportation blamed the slow rescue operations on the plane’s ELT failure to deploy. The CS’s statement contradicted that of KCAA’s director general, Gilbert Kibe, and Fly-SAX’s chairman alluding that the plane was in perfect mechanical condition. The blame game among the stakeholders could prove costly as their reputations get called into question.

A final point relates to social media that is used extensively in Kenya. After Fly-SAX’s initial social media posts, their Twitter feed consisted mainly of reposts thereby losing the much-needed ‘human touch’. Even though Fly-SAX’s chairman offered condolences using traditional media channels, he was unable to do so on social media because he does not have a presence on Twitter or Facebook. At the very least, his face could have appeared on a Twitter card along with an apology attributable to him.

Recovery

Once a crisis situation has been dealt with, organizations often fail to engage in the critical recovery phase. Post crisis, organizations such as Fly-SAX need to repair their reputation, follow-up with information promised during the response phase, and reestablish goodwill among their customers and stakeholders. While Fly-SAX offered a discount on its flights to Kitale and its chairman attended the funeral service of the crash victims, a sustained effort is needed to rebuild confidence in the airline. Fly-SAX and KCAA must also distribute findings from the investigation into the crash and subsequently highlight measures to improve the airline's safety record.

Final Thoughts

A 2018 study by Deloitte concludes that organizations’ confidence exceeds crisis preparedness, despite more crises happening these days compared to 10 years ago. Yet so many organizations either lack a crisis communications plan, do not update it, or fail to rehearse crisis scenarios. Most critically, too many organizations fail to involve their top management in crisis drills even though the C-suite is expected to be at the forefront of a crisis response. Given that a crisis situation is almost inevitable, one of the best ways to survive a reputational damaging event is to be prepared for it.