It’s not what you say it’s how you say it. That’s a lesson that Malaysia Airlines has learnt to its PR cost this week. It was accused of breaking news to the families of people missing on the lost flight MH370 that, in effect, they should give up hope of seeing their loved ones ever again – by SMS. They wrote that the evidence now made it almost certain that the flight had come down in the southern Indian Ocean.
It must be stressed that the airline insists most people were told in person or by phone and that only a few were sent an SMS. They also say this was done to ensure the families did not get the news from the media but direct from the airline. But even if they were told by SMS does it matter? And if so, why? The words we say in person or in a text are pulled from the same vocabulary. We can write as much in a text as in a letter of, say, condolence – which is acceptable. Indeed it is often only when someone writes out words that we believe them, love them, understand them. The job offer in the post, the missive of affection, the heartfelt explanation, all look better when written down. But only if it’s on paper. And preferably a paper of a certain weight in a crisp envelope. Send any of those same words – exact same words – in a text or an email and they lose their value. Their meaning and substance dims.
Yet typing or writing takes the same effort. And the electronic delivery seems to carry weight with it for news reporters. So when it comes to the personal why does the text fail? Whether you are resigning from your job or ditching your husband a text is just regarded as cowardly, removed, cold. It’s just not allowed. There’s no reasoning that stands up to logical scrutiny. It’s just one of those things that people from China to America have quietly concurred on. You cannot talk of death or love and be believed if your fingers have just danced across a keypad.
Andrew Tuck is Monocle’s editor