A Critical Public Relations Approach to Crisis Communication and Management: A Case Study of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 Disappearance 2014-2018

從批評性公關角度分析危機溝通與管理 ─ 以馬來西亞航班MH370失蹤﹝2014-2018﹞為例

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Award date24 Feb 2020


The year 2014 witnessed one of the most severe flight incidents around the world, Malaysia Airlines flight 370 disappearance. On July 2nd, 2018, the final investigation report was released to the public by the Malaysian International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) Safety Investigation Team, which failed to locate the main wreckage of MH370 except with the conclusion that the diverted flight path during the MH370 crisis was caused by “manual control”. In terms of response and reaction, Malaysia, contextually represented by Malaysia Airlines (MAS) and the Malaysian establishment (GOV), was criticised for their poor performances in crisis communication and management. Starting from the context of this crisis and guided by political public relations, this thesis takes MH370 as a case of public relations (PR) crisis and examines the discursive process of Malaysia’s crisis response and image rebuilding. 

In recent years, PR scholars have argued for a new research orientation, which emphasises the need to employ a critical approach for examining the social factors and their ideological effects upon PR practices (Martinelli 2011:44). This research focus, which has shifted from management to ideology, necessitates a better understanding of PR in terms of social power and influence (McKie & Munshi 2009). The present research thus proposes a critical public relations approach to crisis communication and management with MH370 as a case study. By analysing 84 national media texts and 85 response statements (45 from MAS and 40 from GOV), this thesis conducts a critical study of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 disappearance and focuses on three aspects: national media representations of Malaysia’s image, the airline company and the government’s rhetorical strategies of delivering stances and actions in the crisis, and the dynamic process of image reconstruction and national recovery. Specifically, adopting the analytic tools of transitivity and appraisal and the social actor theory, the study reveals how a crisis with unknown causes was handled by MAS and GOV through a series of crisis framing and image restoration practices. With a combination of situational crisis communication theory (SCCT), the research also discusses their use of different response strategies while conducting a series of communication actions. 

Drawing on the theories in Political Public Relations (PPR) and Critical Discourse Studies (CDS), the research attaches equal importance to ideology and power instead of merely management function, among which nationalism is revealed in the data to emphasise patriotism and devotion to the nation during the crisis. These nationalistic ideologies control the power of the national media and construct positive media representations of the airline and the establishment images. To exercise their administrative control, MAS and GOV must emphasise the need for all the stakeholders and the affected group to devote to resolving the crisis. Based on their PR practices in media and institutional discourses, the present study summarises the effectiveness, and the discursive relationship between ideological impact, power and national recovery.