Success and failure. The Wall Street Journal today juxtaposed two counterpoints in underwater search. Page 3 reported that after five hundred years archaeologists believe they have now found the remains of Columbus’s lost ship, the Santa Maria. Buried in just ten feet of water, it has been lost since 1492.
Deeper in the paper was a frustrated analysis of the search for Flight MH370 by none other than Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Najib Razak. Am I the only communications professional on the planet that has some sympathy for the beleagured Prime Minister? As I listened day after day to CNN reporters bemoan the lack of transparency, the slow drip of information, the misinformation — I couldn’t help asking myself, “What do they expect?”
Malaysia doesn’t have answers. They don’t know what has happened. Anxious families hang on their every word. If they say too little they are in trouble. If they said too much, would they have to retract? Is there any communications strategy on the planet that can bring relief to these grieving families?
The unprecendented nature of the disappearance placed extraordinary demands on the small Southeast Asian country. In the early days of investigation, as they scrambled to try to find clues, the Prime Minister admits that they did not prioritze communications — a mistake to be sure. But in all the finger pointing, surely the real culprit must be the aviation industry that has resisted efforts to implement known technologies that could provide important clues, and secondly the policy makers who, despite the lessons learned from he Air France tragedy, did not make these changes mandatory.
It is now assumed that Malaysia Flight 370 rests roughly 5,000 feet beneath the surface of the ocean in one of the most unexplored places on the planet. It took 500 years to find the Santa Maria, lying just 5 miles from landfall — right where Columbus’s diary said it was. It took almost 100 years to find the Titanic and we had known coordinates to aid in the search. Have we grown so arrogant in our belief in modern technologies that we think we can expect to locate the Boeing 777 after just weeks of searching?
A few years ago, I won an ocean crossing on the Queen Elizabeth II. What impressed me most about that voyage is that still, today, it is possible to set out on the ocean for six days and never see another vessel. It’s still a pretty big world. Communication is an important crisis tool to be sure, but there are some things it just cannot solve. This may be one of them. Isn’t it time we cut Malaysia a little slack?