By YURI KOGAN and ZEV COHEN of Ergo Oriens Crisis Management. (Special to The Jewish Post & News)
PS752, a scheduled commercial flight by Ukraine International Airlines from Tehran to Kyiv disappeared from air traffic control radar a few minutes after departure in the early morning hours of Wednesday, January 10. Initial media reports, quoting local witnesses and Iranian officials reported the airliner disappeared 6 minutes after departure at an altitude of 8,000 ft. It was reported that no distress call was transmitted by the crew. All 176 crew and passengers on board were reported as casualties. There were no survivors. Most of those on board were either Canadian citizens or others on their way to Canada through Kyiv.
Shortly after the incident both Iranian officials and the embassy of Ukraine in Tehran claimed PS752 crashed due to technical causes, namely a burnout of one of the airliner’s engines. This theory was retracted after a short while as other versions of events started appearing, namely the possibility that the airliner was shot down by a Russian produced air defense missile operated by Iran.
The latter version was totally rejected by Iran. Seyyed Abbas Mousavi, the spokesperson of the ministry of foreign affairs of Iran, speaking at a press conference on Thursday, January 9th, had tagged the “early assessments by some Western media officials that a Ukrainian airliner carrying dozens of civilians have been shot down” as “the suspicious moves by the West to create a negative atmosphere against Iran” (https://en.rasanews.ir/en/news/448459/iran-slams-west%E2%80%99s-smear-campaign-over-crashed-airliner). This was supported by the head of Iran’s aviation authority Ali Abedzadeh, saying at a press conference on Friday, January 10th, “the missile theory could not be “scientifically correct” because it was not possible for an airliner to be hit and “continue flying for 60 to 70 seconds” (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/01/10/iran-says-certain-missile-did-not-ukrainian-plane-calls-west/). Iranian officials also initially refused to include Boeing Co., the manufacturer of the Boeing 737-800 airliner, or other US entities in the investigation of the event.
In parallel international media hubs began publishing evidence supporting the version by which PS752 was indeed shot down by “an object rapidly moving upwards” and assessed to be a missile launched by an Iranian air defense system. Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau was the first world leader to accuse Iran of unintentionally shooting down the Ukrainian civilian airliner carrying 63 Canadian nationals among its 176 passengers.
Eventually, on the morning of Saturday, January 11th, Iran admitted to shooting down PS752 by an air defense missile due to what was described by a statement of the general staff of Iran’s armed forces as “human error”.
Looking at the described sequence of events from the point of crisis management two crises arise. The first, an internal one, comprised of the sequence of events leading to the erroneous identification of a civilian airliner performing a routine departure maneuver in the vicinity of an international airport and the main gateway to the country, as a hostile incoming target and subsequently deciding to launch missiles and shoot it down. This could be pointing to an insufficient level of operational competence by the operating air-defense crew and will not be discussed here.
The second crisis, relevant to any entity facing an evident failure of a product or an action, causing a major disaster. The criticality of the realization that a crisis has erupted, and the need for putting into effect crisis management practices could not be overstated. This is augmented by the fact that, in this case, multiple sources were able to almost instantly provide a significant body of evidence supporting the version that PS752 was indeed shot down by an object launched from Iranian soil.
The sequence of statements made by Iranian officials, starting from the immediate hours after the disaster took place, claiming it was caused by a technical issue, namely a burnout of one of the airliner’s engines is nothing but erroneous in view of the short time passing since the disaster took place, clearly not allowing a proper investigation to take place and produce conclusions as to its causes. The fact these statements were taken ‘off the air’ shortly after being published only adds to the atmosphere of bad crisis management.
It seems nobody in Iran stopped to analyze the sequence of events and the probability of the availability of credible evidence pointing to a version of events contradicting the one presented and promoted by its officials. A claim that this was caused by the lack of information does not seem feasible as air defense missiles are not assault rifle rounds and the fact two were launched and are missing is not something a short examination would not discover. Moreover, in today’s highly monitored world, especially in a strategic hotspot such as the ‘Iranian neighborhood’, the ‘density’ of electronic monitoring and visual imaging is so high, it would be a critical error to deny the responsibility to causing a disaster, where multiple parties have significant motivations to prove you wrong and uncover the truth.
Providing almost automatic ‘I am not responsible’ statements could not be more wrong. In its statements Iran claimed the version of it being responsible to the disaster was aimed to smear it. Iran’s late and somehow lame claim to partial responsibility, putting the rest of it on earlier US actions is the one to negatively portray it, bringing up a picture of it being unsuccessful in covering the causes to the disaster up and being forced to admit guilt by mounting external evidence.
Successful Crisis Management Practices would point first to the identification and acceptance of the fact a crisis is evident. Next, the “immediate suspect” should conduct a swift internal examination aimed at ascertaining the facts, while putting up a statement acknowledging the fact of the disaster happening and an investigation into its causes being conducted. Denying or taking responsibility for the causes if the disaster could take place only after internal checks and investigations were concluded with the facts and evidence clear, as well as their availability to other interested parties. Being perceived as guilty and forced to confess, rather than assuming responsibility for an unintentionally caused disaster is not a position anybody would aspire to.
Yuri Kogan is CEO of Ergo Oriens Consultants, a company specializing in crisis management. Zev Cohen is a former Winnipegger who has lived in Israel for over 50 years. Cohen is now working with Kogan on developing a series of a articles aimed at the general public, dealing with issues of crisis management.