Lessons in crisis communication for government and businesses

THIS is a very tricky article to write.

People nowadays usually care most about which side you take, and seldom believe you when you say you’re not taking sides.

Anyway, believe it or not, there will be no taking sides in this article, which is about communication tools and strategies.

Like all tools, these can be used for both good and evil.

I’m going to take two primary case studies today, involving a government official and a businessperson.

Today, I will comment on the communication strategies employed by these two individuals, while making absolutely zero comment and taking no position on the controversies they were involved in.

As someone who works in communications, I am here only to humbly offer some perspectives on the effects of what people say, and how they say it.

In the first instance, a once universally revered government official tweeted a reply to someone who criticised him on Twitter.

Many netizens read his reply as an implication that it was Malaysians at large who were failing to flatten the Covid-19 curve.

Many angry responses centered on the fact that said government official did not censure high ranking politicians who had brazenly broken standard operating procedure (SOP) rules - the case of the distribution of frozen chickens in Putrajaya comes to mind - and was instead venting his frustrations on ordinary Malayians, who were already feeling the brunt of the movement control order.

Again, I am not here to comment on who is in the right, or who is in the wrong.

From a communications perspective however, I think it will be useful for people in high profile positions to ask themselves each time before they say something in the public domain: is this helping to further my ultimate goals?

In this day and age, I can definitely sympathise with those who are under extreme stress and pressure; surely many are in an emotional state where a very natural response is, in essence, to lash out.

Those who are interested and capable of playing the long game, however, should balance the very brief and fleeting ‘relief’ of responding to criticism on a platform like Twitter, with the potential long term damage it can do to one’s reputation.

In this particular case, I would go so far as to say that posting that reply on Twitter brought zero benefits, and that not posting that reply would have had zero downside.

In other words, the official’s long term interests would have been, 100% beyond doubt, better served by making just a slight change in his behaviour: choosing not to reply, instead of choosing to reply.

Not posting that reply would have taken minimal effort. It would have involved not venting on Twitter; which does not preclude venting elsewhere privately to your friends and allies.

If people’s criticisms on Twitter are too upsetting to read, said official could also just as easily not read Twitter.

As someone who is on Twitter often, I can safely guarantee that there is nothing of importance there that you cannot get channeled to you some other way.

I have no comment at all at present on the performance of this government official and so on.

I believe citizens have the right to criticise their government, and said government has the right to have their own views. Healthy discourse and discussion on this should always be encouraged.

But I also believe that there is very little to gain from Malaysians - whether government or rakyat - sniping at each other. In this instance, it may be easier for the one official to hold their tongue, than it is to try and expect millions of Malaysians to hold theirs.

Some previous tweet replies by this official have also come across as odd at best - a phenomenon which could arguably again be traced back to being under immense stress and pressure.

At the end of the day, nobody benefits from this official doing a bad job; we all want him to do a good job.

In order to do so, I would once again advise: In the best case scenario, stay off Twitter; a staff member can just as easily post updates for you as necessary.

If you really can’t, then at the very, very least, exercise extreme caution before deciding to reply to any Tweet; count to ten first, or better yet, count to a hundred, and ask yourself again: Will posting this reply truly bring any benefit?

The second case involves an expatriate businessperson who was interviewed by a foreign publication. The comments made by this businessperson generated massive controversy and backlash.

I think enough has been said about the contents of that interview, what people found problematic about the comments and so on. I am not here to add to that discourse.

For now, allow me to focus only on the apology that was posted by the businessperson.

Apologies are interesting things, in the public relations world.

The backlash was so strong, that there was no doubt the company would have had to have issued something or another in response.

My view is that if you decide that that response should be an apology, then you had best apologise all the way. Because a half-hearted apology is simply not going to cut it.

A full apology is not easy. It requires swallowing one’s pride, and no small dose of sincerity (or if you want to be completely mercenary about it, at least someone who can write you something extremely sincere).

It requires really delving into and understanding what people are upset about.

This cannot really be accomplished if what you are actually is still feeling dismissive, vindictive, or plain offended.

If that is still how you really feel, then you have to make a decision regarding what is more important to you: your business or your pride. Nowadays, it would be foolhardy-level pride to think your business will survive a controversy like this.

So, my humble advice is: don’t issue half-hearted ‘apologies’ filled with platitudes and empty nothings; you will likely only incite people further, and make things worse for yourself.

Instead, take real time and genuine effort to understand at a deep and intimate level what people are upset about. Your apology must demonstrate this understanding, and indicate that you validate their feelings, that you sincerely regret the way you made other people feel, and are genuine about wanting to change your behaviour.

Anything short of this, and you will be digging yourself into a deeper grave.

I’ll take this opportunity to add in a few other comments based on recent observations.

First, if someone on Twitter who has no following at all decides to criticise you, responding (especially via Quote Tweet), will give your critic infinitely more visibility than if you simply ignore their tweet.

Second, it is natural when you feel under siege to enter into a combative mode. If you find yourself embroiled in a polarising controversy in which large groups of people are - justifiably or unjustifiably - upset at you, it is also wise to measure your response very carefully.

If you do not believe yourself to be in the wrong, you don’t have to take that position. But rather than be combative, it would go a long way to acknowledge why the accusations against you might be such hot button issues, and humbly reaffirm your commitment to certain principles and values - all while maintaining that you will present your side of the story at the appropriate time and platform.

For all the cases above, one more perspective may be relevant.

When under attack, it is natural to surround yourself with allies who will offer you unconditional support. There’s nothing wrong with this, we all need emotional support.

But do be wary of doing this to the point where you ensconce yourself only with people who are feeding you with only one (usually validating) perspective, causing you to believe you are totally in the right, and to underestimate the severity and magnitude of those who feel differently.

You’ll want to avoid either extreme of beating yourself up too much, or being arrogantly convinced that you are right and everyone else is an idiot.

On a human level, I truly believe everyone has feelings, and that those feelings should never be invalidated or belittled. We cannot control what we feel.

On a professional level however, we most certainly can manage how those feelings translate into actions. In doing so, let us always keep our true end goals in mind.

NATHANIEL TAN is a strategic communications consultant who often studies how people respond to crises. He can be reached at nat@engage.my.

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