Haris Ahmed Chicago: Using PR to Respond to Disasters

Haris Ahmed (Chicago), is the CEO and founder of Pragmatium Consulting Group, Inc., a consulting firm that performs public relations functions for both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Pragmatium provides creative yet grounded PR responses to all sorts of situations, resulting in sustained positive brand perception and engagement for its clients. Today, he writes about the role of public relations in managing disasters and similar crisis situations.

I’m no prophet of doom, but I’d be lying if tensions over security and personal safety are not at an all-time high. Since Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 went missing over the Indian Ocean in 2014, companies and governments alike have realized the importance of proper public relations in either raising awareness of a situation or deflating it altogether. The said incident highlighted the company’s and the Malaysian government’s lack of experience in dealing with crisis situations, and PR practitioners around the world expressed dismay about the Malaysian Airlines PR team’s handling of the event.

One veteran crisis expert, Robert Jensen, observed that crisis communications is all about not making a situation worse, simply because things can’t get any better. Because Malaysian Airlines was a national carrier, it was expected that they would’ve handled the situation better. However, there were reports of inaccurate information being disseminated by the combined PR teams of the airline and government to the media, with retractions coming after a few hours or days.

PR Week observed that Malaysian Airlines did not engage any external PR firms in its crisis management efforts, relying instead on the Malaysian government’s communications channels. It did, however, get advice from a firm in the UK. As time went by, it became apparent that the lack of coordination between the government and the airline made a bad situation worse. Instead of having the CEO face the public, Malaysian Airlines appointed someone relatively lower in the hierarchy to deal with the PR fallout.

This could have been averted if the carrier had reached out to an external PR agency right away. A PR agency with experience in crisis communications would have been mitigated, if not manage, the news of the plane as soon as it was confirmed that it had gone missing. The agency would’ve also been able to gauge the appropriate response to the situation and frame it in the context of similar events while maintaining respect for the victims and their loved ones. Jensen says that finding the plane had become secondary after a few weeks; instead, the focus should have shifted to helping the victims’ families heal and move on from the event.

Plane crashes and similar disasters cannot be predicted. However, their effect on organizational and national morale and image can be mitigated with proper public relations. This fact is not lost on PR practitioners across the U.S., including Haris Ahmed. Chicago, the site of Pragmatium Consulting’s headquarters, is also the transport hub for the Midwest and has seen its share of air-related disasters. Thus, PR agencies in the area are able to respond to disasters quickly and effectively.

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