MA Flight 370 – The Medium is the Message by Stan Polit

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Fifty years have passed since media scholar Marshall McLuhan published his 1964 work, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.  While the name of his book may not be immediately familiar, one of its quotations will be: “The medium is the message.”

MA370 TextThe methods used by Malaysia Airlines to communicate the fate of Flight 370 have become as controversial as the message itself.  Over the last two weeks, myself, like much of the international community has been anxiously watching this ever-evolving story.  Even though images of possible debris are still in question, the images of grieving families clearly portray the inevitable human costs of this crisis.  Almost daily, we see and hear heart-wrenching pictures and stories of grieving family members being dragged out of press conferences as they seek every possible detail about the fate of their loved ones.

The international community and the family members share an important characteristic.  They each have an insatiable appetite for every new detail about this story.

This may explain Malaysia Airlines’ decision to send the following text message to passenger families in the wake of new data about the plane’s fate:

“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 hour from Malaysia’s Prime Minister, we must now accept all evidence suggests the plane went down in the Southern Indian Ocean.”

While the company clarified that the text message had been only one of the communication tools used to inform family members, the reputational damage had already been done.  Malaysia Airlines’ communication problems stem from focusing on the message without thinking about the medium.  A news outlet that sends you a text message with emerging details is considered progressive and tech savvy.  A company which sends a text message to families of passengers with the same news is detached and cold-hearted.

Malaysia Air TwitterThere is no question that Malaysia Airlines’ use of text messaging had been intended to help insure widespread knowledge of new developments.  However, this attempt at complete transparency required Malaysia Airlines to actively address and justify sending this message using this medium.  It is a bit ironic that a company criticized for a lack of communication throughout the crisis has been forced to expend great effort communicating about how it communicated.

Companies now have more tools in their communication tool box than ever before.  Such access presents unprecedented opportunities to communicate with the widest possible audience during a crisis.  However, these new opportunities should not come at the expense of forgetting that not every tool is best suited for a particular task.  A hammer can be used to put a screw in the wall, but the result may be a bigger hole and a cracked wall.   McLuhan’s words remind us that using merged media strategies to address the lives and fates of humans must never be shared without considering the human element.

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