by Colin Jowell

While most marketing and PR focus their efforts on good news and growth, the real test of marketing muscle comes in a crisis.

The missing Malaysia Airlines plane has brought into stark relief an undeniable truth of life in the glare of 24 hour news and internet attention.

By all accounts, the airline’s handling of the situation has been great. Reports of regular updates. Even though there was nothing new to add, that in itself was news that people needed to hear. They could have released speculative information in the hope that they would be viewed to be making progress. But the fact remains that they have not, and so that is what they said. In addition, they have moved all branding on their website, twitter and Facebook to a grey logo as a sign of respect. Small gestures, such as retiring the flight code MH 370, expressing consistent empathy for the families have meant that their social communities have actually come out in defense of the airline.

Other official bodies have fared less well. Notably, the Department of Civil aviation issued reports of five people not boarding the plane, only to have the Inspector General of Police deny that claim a day later. There are reports of various other bungles and retractions that have escalated to such an extent that the Malaysia Airlines social feeds have resorted to posting links that either acknowledge the confusion, correct it where possible, and remain tightlipped if they truly have nothing to add. When it comes to patriotic support, people are getting behind the airline, rather than the government.

While we may be unsurprised that a corporate PR machine runs more slickly than a government one, one cannot help but ask what would happen, if heaven forbid, a similar tragedy unfolded here.

The press reaction to Qantas of late, has been mixed, at best. The airline’s latest claims that they are the only airline to put Australia first may defensible for sure, but the fact that the airline has almost two thirds fewer fans on facebook than Malaysia Airlines would indicate that it may not be as resonant a claim with their customers as they think.

Certainly, Qantas would have excellent crisis management skills - and some of those good practices Malaysia Airlines no doubt has in place. But what they should examine carefully, is whether they have the same level of bedrock support and patriotism.  Qantas moved away from the “I Still Call Australia Home” campaign for good reason - the need to position themselves and a progressive and forward thinking “modern” Australian airline that could compete with the emerging players.

Looking at it through the lens of current tragedy though, there is great value of being the overt bearer of national pride, no matter how traditional the expression of that may be. Interestingly Qantas PR has just started to have a decidedly patriotic flavour (for example, this piece) and it would be smart to embed this more deeply across their marketing. While one wouldn’t expect a return of the singing children’s chorus any time soon, an equivalent pull on the strings of the nations heart would not go astray.