Friday, January 27, 2012

Crisis Management Lessons For Politicians

Right from last December till now, we have witnessed how badly our government and SMRT have managed the various "crisis". In Singapore, we do not have the culture of demanding and providing timely information of all sorts. The importance of timely information is basically ignored. In general, we are not trained in managing crisis.

A domesticated news industry has lost its natural journalistic instinct in looking out for vital information and asking important questions of public interests. Investigative reporting is either discouraged or basically disallowed. Whistle blowers are quickly dealt with internally. The political culture in Singapore is more of "covering up" or providing the least information possible to the public for fear of whatever reasons. However, the New Media has changed the rule of the game.

When certain "undesirable" information is being "leaked" or reported on New Media, blogs or internet based social political websites, the authorities seem to be at a lost on how to deal with such Public Relationship problems.

Politicians from both the opposition as well as ruling parties lack the necessary Public Relationship skills to deal with all sorts of big and small crisis. Most of the time, they would hope that by remaining silent, the problems will just go away. In this internet era, this is not possible. It is an outdated PR method (ostrich mentality) which could only apply with total monopoly of information flow.

The most common quote you can hear from officials is "We do not comment on rumors". While this may apply fairly well on certain issues but it may look bad on the person in question when the rumors are basically detrimental to his or her integrity or reputation. The most common rumor circulated on internet forums is about prominent politicians having extra-marital affairs.

I have been observing Taiwan and Hong Kong politics for quite some time. I will quote a couple of interesting examples of how politicians deal with Public Relationship crisis.

In the run up to the Hong Kong Chief Executive elections, BOTH potential candidates Henry Tang Ying Yen (唐英年, commonly known as Henry Tang) and Leung Chun Ying (梁振英,commonly known as CY Leung) were rumored to have extra-marital affairs. These rumors were spreading like wild fire on the internet but no one has shown conclusive evidence just yet.

CY Leung responded to such rumor immediately to dismiss it as a lie. He even added that it would not be FAIR to the women mentioned in the rumor if he did not come up to deny it outright. He has portrayed himself as someone who is not only protecting his integrity but also protecting the reputation of the women being maligned.

For a politician to respond in such a way, he must be 100% sure that this rumor is false or at least, he must be damn sure that no one could produce any conclusive evidence of such affairs. Most likely, he did not do it and it turns public perception to his advantage. Such rumor will be viewed as malicious attempt out to discredit him.

For Henry Tang, he did the opposite. He walked up to the press, holding his wife's hand tightly and made a simple statement of admission. He didn't answer to any questions raise during the press conference but just read out his statement. He said he is sorry that his personal indiscretion has caused much trouble to many people, especially the woman involved. He refused to confirm the identity of the woman, so to protect her from further unnecessary harassment. He reiterated that the affair was in the past and his wife has forgiven him. They have moved on from that past episode. This will be his first as well as the last response he would make with regards to the extra-marital affairs.

Some may wonder why Henry Tang should offer apology and admission even though no solid evidence has been offered by anyone on the internet. When a rumor is created, there will be some people who will defend the accused politician while there will be people who will use the opportunity to bring him down.

If the politician chose not to respond or deny but eventually someone come up with some conclusive evidence, the tide will totally be turned against the politician. His supporters will feel cheated and he will lose all his support base. This is the greatest nightmare to a politician. He will lose every support, even sympathizers if he ever lied or remained silent. He will be forever labelled as a cheat, a liar and irresponsible person who does not dare to bear the brunt of his own wrong doing.

The alternative option for the politician is to admit it openly and seek forgiveness. In the process, demonstrates that he would be responsible for whatever mistakes he has made in his life while trying to protect the women involved. He will most probably retain his support base and gain more sympathizers.

Furthermore, by making a short and swift response to this rumor, it will end the media disaster. Even if there are any compromising evidence leaked in future, it will have little or no value. The media will hype about it for the admission but it will die off eventually. This is evident in Henry Tang's case. The campaign didn't get derailed into reports on slanderous affairs but rather focus on his policy options he has to offer.

It is with such considerations and advice given by his PR manager that Henry Tang finally stood up and admit. He has successfully neutralized the great amount of bad press generated by this rumor hanging like a sword above his head.

Some may argue that such extra-marital affairs are private matters and it has nothing to do with the capabilities of the politician. However, such argument may be debunked quickly because politicians hold great powers in certain aspects in managing public assets and resources. If he could cheat his own spouse, he could cheat anyone, least to say, the public. Thus, the important thing is to minimize the perception of such cheating. If a politician choose to "try his luck" and bet on others not having concrete evidence, then he will reinforce the perception of being a dishonest man if any such concrete evidence surface.

Thus, in retrospective, Henry Tang has successfully removed or minimized the impression of being a cheat or dishonest by admitting outright, apologized and gained forgiveness from his wife. He also builds up his image as a person who will take up responsibility of any wrong doing. He has successfully minimize the damage of his extra-marital affairs done to his campaign. Nobody seems to think that his extra-marital affairs would matter anymore in his bid for the Chief Executive post after his open admission.

I hope the two case studies I have provided here would enlighten some in crisis management. On the PR perspective, it is not what trouble you get into that matters most. It is about the loss of confidence of your supporters that matters most and it will be determined by how you manage your own crisis.

Of course, I would want to reiterate my personal maxim, 因果不存侥幸: Never try your luck with Karma. The best way to avoid trouble is not to plant the seed at all.

Goh Meng Seng

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

you are jealous of yaw , is it? this is not the time to insinuate wrong doings... you got your target wrong.