Think before naming and inadvertently shaming

Linden Birns

Matching expectations for transparency, providing answers and assuming responsibility in the white-heat of a crisis is desirable. But it should be achieved through considered interventions, not knee-jerk reactions which might come back to bite where they are least expected.

Amongst the developments relating to the as yet unexplained loss of Lion Air flight JT610 was the airline’s decision to name and then suspend its technical director and other personnel, pending the outcome of the accident investigation. This at an emotionally charged time when the people affected by the loss are feeling raw, frustrated, bewildered, distressed and in shock.

One has to ask if the airline, in a rush to find a sacrificial lamb, stopped to consider how best to explain the suspensions and the potential ramifications if they failed to explain what is a nuanced, but very important matter.

The airline may have intended to show it was taking positive decisive action. Instead, what emerged is a story strongly suggesting the airline is admitting culpability, has found its officials guilty and has sentenced them by identifying them. All this before the official investigation has even presented them with a case to answer for.

The accident investigators could interpret the suspensions as an attempt by Lion Air to pre-empt or prejudice their work. This could result in censure. If it should transpire that there were other causes – possibly relating to acts or omissions elsewhere in Lion Air or in Indonesia’s civil aviation system – it could be used against them in future criminal prosecution or civil litigation.

Equally worrying is the airline’s disregard for the safety of its staff it rushed to suspend. History is littered with situations where very distressed and frustrated people have taken matters into their own hands, including when they have felt aggrieved following air accidents.
On 01 July 2002 a DHL cargo plane and a Russian passenger jet carrying school children, collided in mid-air over Uberlingen, a small town close to the Swiss-German border. The subsequent investigation into the disaster revealed the primary cause to have been a lapse in communication resulting from control over the aircraft being handed from German to Swiss air traffic controllers.

In February 2004, the air traffic controller on duty at the time of the collision, whose name had been made known during the investigation, was murdered by a man whose wife and two children perished in the accident.

In Lion Air’s case, the airline’s poorly conceived and badly executed attempt to take positive action has not only created a very negative perception of the airline and potentially harmed its legal standing, but it has also put its suspended staff in harms way.
There are very good reasons not to play fast and loose when managing a crisis. Care and consideration does not just apply to how victims families are treated. It also applies to your company and your people.