In the fall of 2012 I joined Malaysia Airlines as senior marketing VP with the goal of making the airline a world leader in digital engagement. In less than 14 months we developed a fully digital marketing strategy. Our Facebook page jumped to over 1.7 million followers, and the Wall Street Journal recognized us as the world’s second best airline in customer social engagement.
Then the unthinkable happened. On March 8, 2014, flight MH370 disappeared from radar over the South China Sea.
A word that was repeated during the MH370 event was: unprecedented. It was unprecedented that a modern Boeing 777 aircraft could vanish; the search effort was unprecedented with—at its peak—over 100 ships and aircraft from over 17 countries participating; and it is an unprecedented event in aviation history, and the largest media event of its kind ever, being the number one story on CNN every 15 minutes for over seven weeks.
Every airline recognizes that the worst event that can happen is one that results in loss of life. When it actually happens, the impact is much bigger than you could ever imagine. Within 30 hours of learning of the disappearance of MH370, we assembled a team of over 40 communications professionals who immediately began working together for 18-20 hours a day for six weeks. My responsibility was to ensure our business continued; we had to deal with 100,000 cancellations per day every day for 10 days, but we were still operating 350 daily flights with over 40,000 passengers. There was no time to just focus on the monumental challenges of the MH370 tragedy. It was emotionally exhausting, but nothing compared to the pain that was thrust upon each of the families in the most sudden and violent way. We never lost sight of that.
Then, a few months later, disaster struck again. Flight MH17 was brought down by a missile over Ukraine on July 17. When I received the text message about MH17 I simply didn’t believe it; I thought it was some kind of cruel joke.
The tragedy of MH370 taught us how to respond to our community in a disaster. As a result, when we learned about the downing of MH17, we engaged with social media immediately to keep everyone informed. Our #Stay- Strong hashtag, intended simply as a message to our 20,000 Malaysia Airlines employees, went viral and millions of people from around the globe responded with their own messages of support.
Dealing with the events of MH370 and MH17 gave me a very personal perspective on a human experience that was truly unimaginable, emotionally devastating and physically exhausting. But the courage shown by my colleagues at Malaysia Airlines, especially from our crew who had just lost many of their own close friends, was truly inspiring.
On a personal level, it is very difficult to describe how this experience has changed my life. Every person I have met since—from a cab driver in Dublin, to a sheep rancher in New Zealand, to a barber in Hong Kong—are all fascinated by the mystery, and want to know what really happened, and what it was like being at the centre of the storm half a world away from my home and family. I find it impossible to describe that feeling in a sentence or two.