Getting the right message out

  • It's Just Politics
  • Sunday, 05 Apr 2020

Well-intentioned but poorly executed: In this time of global pandemic, the frontliners are the ones the public need to applaud, not the political leaders.

POP quiz. Which of the following news stories is a fake?

A) Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr Adham Baba advised drinking warm water to help kill Covid-19.

B) Housing and Local Government Minister Zuraida Kamaruddin wore a white sanitation suit so that she could spray disinfectant in Kuala Lumpur.

C) The Women and Family Development Ministry, under Minister Datuk Seri Rina Harun, advised women to wear make-up at home and to speak like Doraemon to their husbands to avoid conflict during the movement control order (MCO) period.

D) Deputy Women and Family Development Minister Siti Zailah Mohd Yusoff tweeted that the likelihood of dying from Covid-19 is only 1% while the possibility of dying at any moment is 100%.

E) All of the above is not fake news.

The answer is “E”.

Politicians say the darndest things. And some of their Covidiotic remarks get international attention. They are turning Malaysia into a laughing stock.

Curious to know how these politicians could avoid PR disasters, I consulted several well-respected public relations practitioners.

The public’s negative reaction to the above actions caught media attention, producing news stories that then went global, thereby causing brand damage, explained Yan Lim, CEO of a local communications company, who characterised the bad reaction colourfully as “whacks and flack”. Not only were the ministries affected but so was the nation, she added.

“We need to remember that the media works both ways, just like with any human relationship, and so does a brand damage. It is something a company’s (or in this scenario, the government ministers’) public profile must always avoid, but if it happens, with a well-planned comeback strategy, the profile can be rehabilitated.”

When communicating, particularly in times of crisis, it is best to let the experts speak on their areas of expertise, according to Jacqueline Arnold, managing director of a PR company.

“It’s best practice that the PM addresses issues of national interest, particularly the language used to address the man-in-the-street with the Makcik Kiah example; the Defence Minister speaks purely about matters related to security and the army; the Miti (Inter-national Trade and Industry Ministry) minister speaks about international trade and the economy,” she said.

Arnold applauded the daily media briefing by Health director- general Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah: “He is a beacon of hope for all of us,” she said.

At this time when the entire population is anxious and stressed, Arnold recommends the following to anyone in the public eye:

> Be sensitive about the feelings of our diverse population (men, women, ethnic groups, different religions, differently abled people, etc);

> Be constructive;

> Speak only if you have something important or useful to say;

> Consult and get opinions before issuing tips/guidelines;

> Abstain from publicity stunts.

Lim’s advice to ministers and deputy ministers is that they should make sure that any statement they make either in a personal capacity or on behalf of the ministry (including social media posts in official and personal accounts) is vetted thoroughly by a PR team to ensure there is no miscommunication.

“Essentially, they must ensure that the key messages are crystal clear and there is little room for misinterpretation by the rakyat/stakeholders. Otherwise, blunders will not only affect the minister but the ministry will also look incompetent,” she said.

Lim analysed some of the missteps made by Perikatan Nasional ministers.

In the case of the Health minister, Lim said many would agree that his recommendation to drink warm water to help kill the Covid-19 virus didn’t jive well with the World Health Organisation statements published less than a week before he made the remark.

“He did not seem prepared with what he was supposed to deliver hence he went off-tangent when the host of the show asked a clear question,” she said.

It is very important, Lim emphasised, to prepare talking points before agreeing to a live media interview. “This is why I cannot stress how important it is to stick to talking points prepared by your comms team,” she said.

In the case of the Housing and Local Government minister, Lim said her portrayal of a “people’s leader” was aspirational but the action was poorly executed.

In the midst of a global pandemic, Lim contends that we have not seen any minister in other country do anything similar and the reason for that is they allocate a “share of voice” to frontliners, as they are the ones the public needs to applaud. (Share of voice is a marketing term referring to the measure of the market a brand owns compared with its competitors.)

“The sight of YB Zuraida wearing a full sanitation suit and a ‘Minister’ label on her forehead made the public cringe a little. She should have let the frontliners take the show all the way,” she said.

Lim has plenty of advice for any politician prone to PR boo-boos but the main take away is “the comms machinery is essential”.

Communication professionals can help with blind spots – and “everyone has one”.

She offers an apt quote from Sun-Tzu’s The Art of War: “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”

In these hard times, there’s no need to nag hard-pressed ministers and deputy ministers on how to avoid PR boo-boos. Instead, we should coax them, using a voice similar to Doraemon’s, to do the right thing and add, with a giggle, that they should “Get professional help before you open your mouth”.
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