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Communicating Bad News: Malaysia Airlines

This week Malaysia Airlines sent a text message to the loved ones of passengers on the lost Flight 370. TV comedians and pundits suggested that sending a text message was insensitive in such painful circumstances.

What do you think? Was texting insensitive?

Here is the message Malaysia Airlines sent, according to Business Insider:

Malaysia Airlines deeply regrets that we have to assume beyond any reasonable doubt that MH370 has been lost and that none of those on board survived. As you will hear in the next hours from Malaysia’s Prime Minister, we must now accept all evidence suggests the plane went down in the Southern Indian Ocean.

A Chinese version of the message followed the English one.

Considering the situation, the timing, and the wording of the airline’s message, I support Malaysia Airlines’ decision. The only thing I might have done differently, depending on their other communications to this audience, is to add another line to the text, something like this: “We extend our sincere condolences to you on your profound loss.”

Texting is appropriate for these reasons:

  • Texting was only one way the airline was using to reach people. It was also contacting them by telephone and even in person at the Beijing airport to share this news.
  • It was essential to reach people directly, before they heard the prime minister’s announcement.
  • Because there were 239 people aboard the plane, the airline had to communicate with many people quickly.
  • The airline had undoubtedly already been in contact by text with these family members and friends.
  • The individuals had given the airline permission to text them.

The airline defended its action, in part with these statements, again from Business Insider (bolding is apparently the airline’s choice):

Respect for the families is essential at this difficult time. And it is in that spirit that we informed the majority of the families in advance of the Prime Minister’s statement in person and by telephone. SMSs were used only as an additional means of communicating with the families. Those families have been at the heart of every action the company has taken since the flight disappeared on 8th March and they will continue to be so.

To learn more about communicating bad news, please read my book, Business Writing With Heart: How to Build Great Work Relationships One Message at a Time, which includes the chapter “Share Bad News Without Fostering Bad Feelings.”

Of course, the loved ones of those on board Flight 370 will have many bad feelings, including sadness, loss, deep pain, and the anxiety of not knowing what happened. I hold them in my thoughts and prayers.


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

4 comments on “Communicating Bad News: Malaysia Airlines”

  • I was in Malaysia when the final outcome of MH370 news was announced. The media focused on the text message because it could make sensational headlines. The Malaysian Airlines did more than that. They send out their staff to the hotels where the grieving relatives were staying to tell them the news in person 1 hour prior to the news conference. This part of the communication was only reported in one news link.

  • Dear Lynn,
    I do not think what the Malaysian authorities did was insensitive.In fact, it was the most sensible thing to do considering the special circumstances surrounding this tragedy. The CEO of the Malaysian Airlines (MAS )had promised that the relatives would be the first to be informed of any news regarding the fate of MH 370, and when news became available, text messages were sent out FIRST before the Prime Minister’s press conference to announce the news. This is appropriate considering all the relatives were scattered in different hotels in various countries. Once that was done, there came the ‘personal touch’ from MAS officials and staff.
    The text message was both in English and Chinese, contrary to what the media reports in China said.

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