New Zealand Markets closed

Asiana's perplexing response to crash

Asiana Airlines' threat to sue a California TV station over its airing of bogus, racially insensitive names of Asiana's flight crew represents the South Korean airline's latest perplexing response to the crash of Flight 214 at a time when it should be focusing on reassuring a nervous flying public, experts in crisis communications say.

After its Boeing 777 landed short at San Francisco International Airport on July 6, killing three young passengers and injuring 182 others, Asiana has made several communications mis-steps, according to experts.

That makes it difficult to predict how South Korea's second-largest airline will respond going forward as the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) continues to investigate - and what Asiana will say once the NTSB determines the cause of the crash.

"The name Asiana is now etched in everyone's mind as a crash that fell short of the SFO runway," said Glenn F Bunting, who runs GF Bunting, a San Francisco-based strategic communications company that specialises in crisis management.

"There's very little the company can say to change that in the short run. What they can do about it is begin to aggressively attack and repair their reputation problem. The way to do that is not to remain silent."

Asiana officials did not respond to repeated email and telephone requests for comment.

In an era of real-time social media, Asiana's responses have played out on a global stage.

SimpliFlying, an airline consulting firm, praised federal investigators and SFO for quick statements on the crash and constant social media updates - while crash followers grew increasingly frustrated by the muted response from Asiana.

"Unfortunately, Asiana Airlines, with the world's eyes set on it, was slow to respond and was far from satisfying the insatiable need for more information in the hours after the crash," SimpliFlying wrote in its analysis.

Initially, Asiana offered information on its veteran pilot, who was making his first landing in a Boeing 777 at SFO, and his trainer, who also was on his first flight as a trainer. A day after the crash, the company in South Korea apologised to victims and their families.

But three days after the crash, Asiana Chief Executive Yoon Young-doo landed at SFO and could have shown quiet leadership by making a simple statement through a spokesman that he would not speak publicly because he needed to focus on the injured, the survivors, his crew and his customers, said Chuck Byers, who teaches marketing and public relations at Santa Clara University.

Instead, Yoon declined to speak to the South Korean and US reporters who mobbed him at the airport, and no one spoke on his behalf, giving the impressions he had something to hide.

"You put the senior executive in charge in front of the cameras to answer all questions forcibly and candidly," Bunting said.

"That portrays confidence and assures the public this was a freak thing and they should have full confidence to fly that airline. Scurrying from cameras and dodging the media and refusing to answer questions - none of that is a display of confidence or reassures people they're flying a safe airline. It sends a message to the contrary."

Jee-Eun Song studies South Korean culture as a lecturer in Asian studies at the University of California-Berkeley and believes Asiana officials may have thought their initial apology to victims and their families in South Korea would cover them in San Francisco in the days following the crash.

But in a global economy monitored by 24/7 social media, Yoon's behaviour at SFO was a mistake that goes beyond Asian or Western culture, Byers said.

"If I were their public relations director, I would have a Korean consultant and a North American consultant and a European consultant and an African consultant because the world is getting smaller and smaller and every story is global and every story is local," Byers said.

"I'm sure that Asiana has some very good counsel and advice but I've seen this kind of management problem in places other than the East. It's almost like a Western management problem that got translated to the East."

The day after Yoon arrived, six of the flight's 12 flight attendants appeared at a puzzling news conference in which none of them spoke and even their Korean interpreter declined to be identified.

Some hid their faces.

"In Korea," Song said, "to want to remain anonymous is pretty typical".

But why organise a news conference in which the participants appear reluctant to attend?

"It is a head-scratcher," Byers said.

Then this week, Asiana's focus, at least in public, turned to an embarrassing news story on Friday in which television station KTVU reported bogus and culturally insensitive names for the four pilots on board, such as "Sum Ting Wong" and "Wi Tu Lo". The station has apologised.

Asiana said it plans to sue KTVU but not the NTSB, which has acknowledged an intern "acted outside the scope of his authority" when he erroneously confirmed the names of the crew.

If he had been asked whether Asiana should sue anyone over the KTVU report, Bunting would have told them: "It's clear that KTVU was the victim of a prank. (Filing suit) obviously flies in the face of the First Amendment protections we have here. I wonder if this isn't a clash of cultures".