Malaysia Airlines recently passed the year anniversary of the first of two horrific events.
On March 8, 2014, Flight MH370 disappeared with 230 passengers on board; its location remains a mystery. Four months later, Flight MH17 was shot down over the Ukraine by rebels, killing all 298 passengers.
Dean Dacko was at the helm of the marketing and communications division of the airline when both events occurred. Dacko spoke to CMO.com about how his team dug deep into its marketing toolbox and social media to communicate with the world as the tragedies unfolded, as well as the importance of digital strategy in times of crisis.
CMO.com: Dean, you have been at Malaysia Airlines for nearly two-and-a-half years. What attracted you to the role initially?
Dacko: It was made very attractive for me to join as two folks I had known for quite some time--Dr. Hugh Dunleavy, who's the director of commercial, and Duncan Bureau, who is the senior vice president of sales--had both recently joined Malaysia Airlines and had contacted me.
Then, secondly, it was an opportunity as a marketing guy to come in. Malaysia Airlines was on a burning platform. We needed to transition and transform everything that had traditionally been done. And so it was an opportunity to really take something and reshape it.
CMO.com: What do you think you bring to the table as CMO?
Dacko: There had really been no formal CMO position at Malaysia Airlines in the past. What we did is create one. Malaysia Airlines had operated almost entirely on a tactical basis--one campaign after the next campaign after the next.
It was 100% reactive, and there was really no strategic perspective. So I brought forward a strategy and vision around what we needed to look like, how we needed to restructure, how we needed to retool, how we needed to create a digital platform that would allow us to have a single view of the customer. And so I started to invest in technology, in resources, and a team.
CMO.com: Let’s talk about the evolution of digital media in marketing. How has that changed the game for the airline industry?
Dacko: What airlines have for a long time focused on is tactics to fill airplanes without really a sense of particular audiences or segmentations. The whole notion of engagement has really been built around the customer after they have travelled with you and joined the loyalty program.
Airlines are very good at understanding how to retain customers. But the digital world enables us to engage, attract, and build relationships with customers before they become travellers, before they become customers. The genesis of what we're trying to create at Malaysia Airlines is taking what we understand and know and build engagement and relationships and a personalised communication strategy before they become customers. We then link them to our loyalty program in one pure direct line of relationship building.
CMO.com: You said when you came on board there was no marketing department. Where were you along the journey of putting your plans in place when the tragedy of MH370 occurred?
Dacko: In real practical terms, maybe only a third of the way through. When I first arrived, I had four different divisions. At the time of MH370 I had just hired my fourth VP. I had started to build the structure so we had the ability to create 16 different country sites on Facebook. We had the ability to communicate and engage with those individual country sites and monitor them. That really was the core aspect of understanding what was happening in each market almost on a minute-by-minute basis, to understand what the audience was saying, how they were reacting to it, and then, ultimately, allowing us to develop our communication strategy.
We transitioned all of our social media capability from local servers here in Kuala Lumpur onto the cloud, so we were able to scale up our capability so that our servers didn't crash. We also ended up hiring an independent agency to help us monitor.
CMO.com: Could you expand your social media filtering system and how that helped you to design the communication strategy you put in place during the tragedy?
Dacko: One of the objectives I had set out for the organisation was to have a digital engagement capability that allowed us to reach 80% of our audience and engage with them within 20 minutes, whether it be on Facebook, Twitter, or any other channel.
We were able to do that by having our own people on the ground, as well as we hired a social media company called Rally. Rally was able to help us monitor all those conversations. They gave us in a report every hour on what was being said, and in the space of four weeks, we had almost 58,000,000 posts on our various different sites around the world.
One of the things we did as we transitioned our Web sites across the world was we used an A/B testing environment. We would post two different things on each site and see which one resonated the best with each market. Then we would move on; if it worked in Singapore, then we would do it in Brisbane. If it worked in Brisbane, we would do it in Barcelona.
We would move our communication strategy around, literally, day by day, hour by hour. We had a color-coded system that was red, yellow, and green. If it was red, we would stop.
CMO.com: And that was determined by the feedback you were getting via Twitter?
Dacko: Correct. So if we got a massive negative reaction, we would turn that site to red. We would stop, or we would go to plan B. If it was yellow, we would be cautious, and we would monitor it more closely. If it was green, we would continue to move on a more aggressive manner.
The unique thing about it was that over the course of both MH370 and MH17, we never had to resort to plan B.
CMO.com: Much has been a lot written about how you were able to move quickly to an information-only type of Web site in the immediate aftermath and then make the transition back to using the Web site for commercial means.
Dacko: In the first event, MH370, it was part of the original plan that the Web site went to a place called a “dark side.” The dark side was really all the commercial references were taken off the Web site, and it went to a grey background with text messaging around what was happening with the event.
What we then had to try to figure out was how to transition back to a more commercial standpoint and how to start to introduce elements that were not just text but had some reference to the kinds of messages that we wanted to bring up. So in the first event, it took us about two weeks to create the noncommercial site and separate URLs.
For the second event, we did it within five minutes.
Malaysia marked the one-year anniversary of the disappearance of Flight MH370 with the #AlwaysInMyHeart hashtag.
CMO.com: What lessons did you learn from the first event that helped you deal with the second event?
Dacko: The short answer is we learned a ton. One was that we needed to do a lot more. In the digital environment, the expectation of the audience is that they want information, and they want it now. And that means minutes. You have to provide answers. You have to provide information. You can't hold back.
However, one of the things that was a problem for us in MH370 was we had no information. We still don't. We were very slow with releasing what we did know, or any kinds of statements, and so there was a huge amount of difficulty with that backlash--and a huge amount of brand damage. The impact on our sales and our organisation was huge.
In the past, the way of managing crises was primarily led by lawyers. Their objective was to manage the situation based on mitigating legal liability. The very nature of preventing lawsuits revolves around mitigating or limiting the financial liability that would come from lawsuits.
The reality of today is the amount of damage that will be done to your brand, and the investment you need to recover from that, is substantially greater than any legal liability that you would see. The damage to your brand happens within minutes. Literally, you have millions of people who will be trashing your brand, and it will cost you millions of dollars to recover.
The strategy now needs to be one of getting information out as quickly as possible. So it's almost the reverse of what the traditional strategy was, which was to say as little as possible, as slow as possible.
CMO.com: Did your road map for marketing activities change as a result of the tragedies?
Dacko: Very little has changed in terms of the road map or the strategy. All the things that we have recognised we needed to do in the beginning, and we still know we need to do them. The difference is that we’ve learned a whole lot more about the intricacies of, and impact of, direct communication engagement.
CMO.com: You've learnt some important lessons navigating through the tragedies. From a CMO perspective, what would you like to pass on to others?
Dacko: I think one is there needs to be a realisation that the biggest impact on the organisation will be the relationship with their customers on a global basis. The notion of the digital environment--the critical mass in terms of media attention and awareness--it can overwhelm an organization very, very, very quickly and impact the brand, sales, the future, and your relationship with your customers. That is the domain of the CMO because they're ultimately responsible for the brand and the relationship with the customers.
CMOs need to take ownership. They need to take direct responsibility for managing through these events. In the past, the CMO was really there to create awareness and create a relationship as far as the brand was concerned. Now, for example, I'm responsible for the e-commerce strategy at Malaysia Airlines, for literally billions of dollars of revenue coming into the organisation.
I think as the e-commerce environment evolves, the CMO will have greater and greater responsibility and accountability for revenue, which is ultimately the lifeblood of any organisation. So that's going to increase the importance, the accountability, and, ultimately, the responsibility for CMOs globally. They're going to be charged with the responsibility and accountability to develop that personalised relationship with each and every one of their customers.
CMO.com: What would you say are the three top attributes of today's modern CMO?
Dacko: One is to be bold. You need to be able to convince the organisation that you need to take ownership, you need to take accountability, and you need to take responsibility for moving forward. Be bold in assuming it. Be bold in being assertive in terms of grabbing a hold of that responsibility and that accountability because, ultimately, the customer is expecting it.
Two, be aggressive with respect to building the capability. I know from talking to tons of CMOs from around the world, they all ask me the same question: "How did you figure out how to do this, and how did you convince people you needed to move as quickly as you did?" And the reality is I had a burning platform, and I had to move. I also realised what was coming and that there was no sense going halfway.
So get the right team, get the right technology resources, get the platform together, and be prepared with your capability because it's coming. The audience is going to be expecting it.
Three is recognising the importance of what the customer's expectation is. The reality is that in the past you could tend to be more reactive. Today you need to be more proactive in putting your messaging out there and be aggressive in terms of engagement. You need to show leadership.
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