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Crisis Communication and the Case Study of Missing Malaysia Airlines Flight Mh370

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I. Literature review

In a ‘vulnerable’ society that has been easily affected by many different types of crises such as natural and man-made disasters, in disregard of where you live and what you do, no community or organization is immune from crisis.

In order to provide clear definitions and deeper understanding crises of all types, scholars have developed theories to handle these events. A wide range of crisis fields are studied including psychology (Morgan et al., 2002), sociology (Clarke & Chess, 2008) or political perspective (Birkland, 2006). In addition, other research involved communicating in crisis (Reynolds, 2002). All of these disciplines, even different, combine to build a theoretical background on various approaches to crisis communication and contribute to establish crisis response guidelines for organizations.

Among the prominent theories on crisis communication, the Situational Crisis Communication Theory generates a link between Attribution Theory firstly built by Fritz Heider in the early part of the 20th century which addresses the processes by which individuals explain the causes of behavior and events and crisis response strategies which represent what an organization does and says after a crisis. To protect reputation, it is crucial for the organization to consist the responsibility acceptance of the crisis response with the stakeholder attributions. Coombs (2006) argued that crisis response can be divided into two categories: ‘form’ and ‘content’ in which ‘form’ designs what should and should not be done and ‘content’ indicates the dispatch announced by the organization to stakeholders. Once crisis happens, the crisis management department of any company must determine clearly what they can do and what they cannot do in making the crisis responses. 3 lessons given by the researchers here is to be quick, consistent and open. The purposes of all lessons are to create the perception that the organization is in control of the crisis situation, restore the stakeholders’ confidence and minimize the legal exposure or financial loss. By using the SCCT as a theoretical framework for categorizing crisis situations, the author explained the implications between these two categories to provide a system of matching the crisis response strategies to the crisis situations. This study will identify the crisis communication style of Malaysia Airlines after the flight MH370 missing, through the prism of SCCT model.

Both of the instructing information and crisis response strategies are cores of the crisis response content. In which, instructing information is the primary concern during a crisis, referring to human lives and safety. It addresses one or both of two stakeholders information needs: an explanation of what happened and recommendations for what stakeholders should do to protect themselves from the crisis’s effects. Once it is well assured, efforts to protect the organization’s reputation are undertaken.

In the first step of the crisis response’s identification process, the ‘corporate apologia’ was primarily conceptualized as a genre of self-defense. Expanded from the early applications of the apologia process to crisis communication, Heirit (1994) attached the strategy to ‘social legitimacy’ and thus revealed various response options might be employed and identified some situational factors that could effect the communicative selection. Two different patterns relating to the level of taking responsibility of the organization were introduced through the research: acceptance or denial.

Similarly, Allen and Caillouet (1994) explored the relationship between crises and legitimacy which means the status of adaptation to the social rules held by the stakeholders. In order to reestablish the awareness of organizational legitimacy that was violated during the crisis, the authors suggested a list of crisis responses which is viewed as a structure of ‘impression management’ containing seven strategies applied for different stakeholder groups.

Based on the same communicative concepts of corporate apologia, Benoit (1995, 1999) have developed the ‘image restoration theory’ in which image refers to the perception of stakeholders and publics toward the organization. Benoit’s (1995, 1999) theory contains six principal image repair strategies focusing on how organization reacts against denouncement or responsibility of their actions to restore the organization’s damaged reputation. The six crisis response strategies can be ordered along a continuum approach ranging from defensive, putting organizational image first, to accommodative, addressing victim and stakeholder concerns first (Marcus & Goodman, 1991). This continuum facilitates the crisis practitioners to match the crisis response to the level of crisis responsibility. The greater the responsibility created by the crisis the more accommodative the crisis response strategies must be.

By synthesizing the work of corporate apologia, corporate impression management and image restoration theory, Coombs developed a list of crisis response strategies by the level of responsibility acceptance for SCCT. The author delineated seven crisis response strategies, divided into three options which according to the situation evaluation through two steps: identifying the crisis types by three levels of crisis responsibility and evaluating the ‘performance history’ and ‘crisis severity’. Deny response options include the strategies: attack the accuser (organization is against the person or group claiming the existence of crisis) and denial (organization denies a crisis). Diminish response options include excuse (organization denies the intent to harm and claims inability to control the events), and justification (organization mitigates perceived damage). Deal response options comprise these strategies: ingratiation (managers praise stakeholders or reminds them of past good work of the organization), corrective action (organization starts to repair the crisis damage) and full apology (organization takes full responsibility for the crisis). In later research, Coombs (2007) divided the types of crisis into three categories: victim crisis cluster, accidental crisis cluster, and preventable crisis cluster in accordance with weak, moderate and strong attributions of crisis responsibility level in his former study. In the victim cluster (including natural disasters, rumors, workplace violence, product tampering), a company is considered as the victim of the crisis; in the accidental cluster (including challenges, megadamage, technical breakdown accidents and recalls), the company does not have intentions to cause the crisis in its actions; in the preventable cluster (including human breakdown accidents and recalls, organizational misdeed with or without injuries, organizational misdeed and management misconduct), a company intentionally places its stakeholders in danger, takes inappropriate actions, or violates laws or regulations. In addition, the author placed importance on two intensifiers ‘crisis history’ and ‘prior reputation’ as organization that have repeated crisis or bad credibility is less likely to have their messages accepted by stakeholders.

II. Case study

In reality, aircraft accidents rarely occur, especially in the developed countries around the world, due to high safety norms set by national and international rules. However, once airline accidents happen often provoke serious aftermaths with a high rate of mortality amongst the passengers. In the airline sector, legitimacy can be considered to have a close connection to, and also dependent on how the airline manages safety. An airline that has been involved in an accident can be faced with disputation related to the legitimacy of the airline that has to be tackled strategically.

Another typical characteristic of airline accidents is that the media pay enormous amount of attention to these types of events that usually make headlines all around the world. The attention the airline is given by the media, the general public and authorities place a great amount of pressure on the airline in question that they must deal with simultaneously as they are dealing with the actual crisis. For this reason the airlines communications and actions during the crisis following an accident is of high importance that influences the way the airline is looked upon by stakeholders.

In the case study of missing Malaysia Airlines (MAS) flight MH370, the flight initially departed from Kuala Lumpur, carrying 239 people and was scheduled to land in Beijing. However, almost one hour after takeoff, the airlines lost contact with the flight and it was then declared missing. More than one month later, the plane is announced to be plunged into the southern Indian Ocean with no survivors.

At the beginning of the crisis handle process, MAS appeared to be authoritative and in control by quickly releasing announcement on their Facebook and Twitter account to clarify that the plane was missing and describe in detail the number of passengers, infants and crew on board (Appendix 1). Within two hours, the MAS’s CEO had published another announcement on Facebook and introduced that the airline was gathering next-of-kin of passengers and crew (Appendix 2). After the press conference hold at 11 AM to officially proclaim that the flight was missing, the company had launched a ‘dark site’ which refers a blog-type platform on a corporate website that is only open in case of a crisis to feature the latest information (Appendix 3). From this time all news relating to the flight was posted once on the site and links then were shared via social channels. The first phase of the crisis management process has met the requirements of the crisis response form: to be quick, consistent and open as well as has assured the instructing information towards the stakeholders’ concerns of situation explanation and introduction to the next steps.

Nevertheless, the process has become worse and MAS has been coming under heavy criticism of the poor control of the crisis situation, slowness and inconsistency in sending messages and being charged with withholding information about the crisis to the media and passenger families (Swallow, 2014). The legitimacy of MAS also has been violated when the media spread information relating to passengers using stolen passport for boarding the flight MH370 which raised the consciousness of MAS’s weak airport security system and of the risk of being attacked by terrorists (ABC News, 2014). Facing with media speculation and accusations, MAS has chosen the defeasibility strategy by arguing that they have never experienced this kind of catastrophe before, thus they have lacked the information and ability to manage it well (Alexander, 2014). Besides, while passengers’ relatives expressed their anger toward the lack of information and demanded apology for MH370 from Malaysian government (SBS News, 2014), the reaction still remained in showing the compassion and sharing the passengers’ feelings, no apology or acceptance of responsibility strategy has been used.

Many researchers could be of opinion that crisis strategies should not be only tied to the degree of corporate responsibility but also to multiple contexts such as politics and culture (Oliveira, 2013). Malaysian government were criticized by other relative countries such as China and Vietnam to be uncoordinated in sharing data from their radar and satellite systems, deeming it is ‘too sensitive’ (Branigan, 2013). As a result, the rescue efforts have been delayed and wasteful. Some experts have argued that, given existing tensions in the Asia-Pacific region and strained communications between several principal regional countries, it is impossible to implement an expressive collaboration or military clarity between them. Countries involved in the crisis pursue conflicting benefits in one of the main search area – the East Sea where Malaysia is supposed to get on with China among the territorial claimants.

Besides that, given being a national representative company of Malaysia, the action of withholding information about crisis of MAS could be explained by two popular Asian cultural factors: ‘saving face’ and ‘uncertainty avoidance’. Information was concealed and limited to hide their inferiority and therefore, preserve the country’s image. Additionally, the international characteristic of consumers, 227 passengers from 14 different countries is another major complexity to the government of Malaysia in maintaining international relationships. Their equivocal communication between neither denial nor acceptance of responsibility seems to avoid intensifying stakeholder anger and divert the focus of publics. This crisis recalls the Chinese approach to melamine-contaminated milk scandal in 2008. Sanlu, a leader company in Chinese dairy market, when being accused to cause kidney stones for children who consumed their products by adding melamine – a toxic chemical substance into diluted raw milk to make it appear high-protein in quality tests, has received the protection from Chinese government against unfavorable information from the media. The action was interpreted as Sanlu was a profitable state-owned enterprise and as the crisis occurred around the time of the Beijing Olympic Games, when the food safety was the most sensitive matter for the government thus they did not want to experience such a public relations disaster on national scale and as the Chinese culture is to prevent the dishonor from spreading outside to save face (Ye & Pang, 2011). Findings from these case studies indicated that politics, culture and society could perform as influential elements on the crisis management and it is vital to have a multi-contextual approach in building suitable strategies for each crisis situation.

(2,065 words) Bibliography

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