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Ethiopian Airlines: crisis and communications

By Morris Kiruga, in Nairobi
Posted on Tuesday, 26 March 2019 16:29

Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde GebreMariam at the Africa CEO Forum 2019, where the airline won the 'African Champion' award. REUTERS/Jean Bizimana

The 10 March crash of flight ET302 on 10 March tested the management and communications skills of Ethiopian Airlines.

The world first learned that Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 had crashed in Bishoftu, about 62km south-east of Bole International Airport, in a tweet from the Prime Minister’s office. At 10.50am (EAT) Abiy Ahmed’s official handle (@PMEthiopia) tweeted: “The Office of the PM, on behalf of the government and people of Ethiopia, would like to express its deepest condolences to the families of those that have lost their loved ones on Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 on regular scheduled flight to Nairobi, Kenya this morning.”

It was just over two hours after the plane crash, and some of the first responses openly wondered why it was the government, not the airline, that was announcing the tragic news. The crisis communication, though, was clearly coordinated. After Abiy’s lead, the carrier followed a few minutes later and has continued ever since. Ethiopian Airlines released four accident bulletins on that first day. In its fifth one, the next morning, it announced it would be grounding its remaining Boeing 737 Max 8s, joining a growing list of countries and airlines taking the same precautionary measure. It also leveraged its online presence not just to share emergency hotlines but also to answer media questions.

Trust at the top

The decision to let the Prime Minister break the news established immediate trust, Shashank Nigam, the chief executive of leading aviation brand strategy firm SimpliFlying, tells The Africa Report. Abiy only joined Twitter in November 2018 but, in the five months since, has changed how his government communicates with the world. It helps that he has captured global attention with his extensive reform programme, which gave him increased gravitas.

The true measure of crisis communication though, fell on the airline. It had the worst tragedy in its entire history on its hands, which meant hundreds of families and millions of people across the world would be seeking timely and credible news updates. Nigam says: “[Ethiopian Airlines] has been transparent and forthcoming with regular updates on the crisis. While the public wants more information, the airline has clarified the limits of [its] knowledge at this early stage in the investigations.” This openness is helping the airline navigate the crisis.

Getting the facts right

Chaba Rhuwanya, a freelance communications consultant, wrote on Medium that Ethiopian Airlines “capitalised on sympathy across the world, solidarity from Africa and testimonies of those who flew with Ethiopian Airlines who stood witness that despite the accident, things were back to normal and on course.” That counted as flyers and others came to the airline’s defence against claims by several commentators about its safety record.

The airline itself also used Twitter to clarify facts, including those in a New York Times story that said that the pilot of the ill-fated plane had never trained on the Boeing 737 Max 8’s simulator. Ethiopian Airlines’ statement said the simulator “is not designed to simulate the MCAS system problems [that may have caused the crash]”, pushing the issue back to the fundamental question airlines and regulators have been grappling with since 10 March.

On 21 and 22 March, the carrier lambasted the New York Times and the Washington Post for publishing unverified claims and called for everyone to await the results of the investigations under way. Ethiopian Airlines has largely refrained from speculating about the cause of the crash, but the country’s transport minister said on 18 March that the crash was similar to a recent Lion Air crash.

Ethiopian Airlines CEO, Tewolde GebreMariam, was appointed after a previous crash, the loss of Flight 409 in February 2010, which was its worst accident at the time. In January 2012, Ethiopia refuted the accident inquiry report by the Lebanese government, terming it “biased, lacking evidence, incomplete, and did not present the full account of the accident” after it blamed pilot error. The lessons from this experience must be on Tewolde’s mind, as well as the government’s, as they navigate the long and arduous task of investigating the crash and dealing with its aftermath.

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