The delicate art of crisis management
Experts say this is mostly done ad hoc by PR firms here, not specialists
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: CHNG CHOON HIONG
DAMAGE control: two words that no organisation wants to hear but must prepare for in times of crisis.
There have been some especially daunting challenges for crisis managers lately, including the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 and vehicle recalls for General Motors and Toyota.
Countries are not spared either, with Vietnam trying to quell concerns over two days of violent anti-China protests that have left more than 100 injured and more than 20 dead, and affected various firms in two Vietnam-Singapore Industrial Parks last week.
Priority Consultants managing director Kunalan Doraisingham says: "Crises come in all shapes and sizes today, with online phishing scams, sexual harassment cases and industrial action being some of the modern-day issues that organisations need to address."
Consultants agree that the missing MH370 serves as a good example of a crisis that could have been better handled.
Mr Kunalan says the information delivery process allowed multiple spokesmen to engage the public and misinformation to leak out.
He adds: "Facts were not made clear and the constant drip-feeding of information only served to exacerbate the situation even further."
However, experts agree that it is tough to deal with a crisis when the cause is unknown, as it was with MH370.
When that happens, MSLGROUP Singapore managing director Kelvin Yeo says the best an organisation can do is to communicate.
This includes telling the public whatever it knows, "but just facts, never speculation" and, most importantly, what the organisation is doing about it, such as for those affected and their families, and what action it is taking to ensure that no one else is in danger.
It should also show "regret and remorse that a tragedy has occurred, and human lives have been impacted".
Ms Christina Cheang, Weber Shandwick Singapore chairman, adds that the first priority should always be for the safety and well-being of the general public and employees.
"This must always come first, before profit and the need to protect the company's reputation," says Ms Cheang.
She cites the Nicoll Highway collapse in 2004 as an example of good crisis management, as the communication was generally well-contained and well-managed, and those living and working close to the area were well-informed early on.
Mr Kunalan highlights the well-managed Chilean mining incident in 2010, where 33 workers were trapped in a mine for two months.
He says: "The communication was handled by a formal crisis spokesman who, for the majority of the engagement, delivered the facts as they were known, while the (then) President was the embodiment of the nation's hopes, prayers and human fellowship, visiting families, being available at the site and seen as rallying spirits."
Top executives or officials have also stepped up to take personal responsibility in recent times, such as GM chief executive Mary Barra, who apologised and admitted that the company was to blame for faulty ignition switches linked to 12 deaths in 31 crashes.
Or take South Korean Prime Minister Chung Hong Won resigning over the Sewol ferry incident.
Mr Yeo notes: "When lives have been lost, there is the expectation that someone has to ultimately take responsibility, and this cannot be a company or an organisation."
He adds that it is increasingly a must for the most senior person to assume final responsibility.
This responsibility often falls to the head of the organisation.
"In a number of Asian societies and cultures, there is also an ingrained public expectation for both individuals and organisations to apologise for a perceived wrongdoing, even if the root cause of the issue has yet to be determined," says Mr Yeo.
Consultants note that crisis management in Singapore is mostly done by PR firms on an ad hoc basis, as opposed to having firms specialising only in crisis management.
Mr Kunalan adds that taking responsibility for the situation cannot and must not be mistaken for taking the blame. Being blamed is something many fear.
He has also observed that the culture of crisis preparedness is still not very well-developed in Asia and organisations often just react to events as they occur.
"Crisis preparedness is about being ready to deal with different stress situations where there is an imminent or actual loss of life or lives, collateral, property, finances or damage," says Mr Kunalan, adding that organisations need to engage with audiences proactively, even before crises occur.
"In other words, preparing for the disaster or contingency is almost more important than managing the crisis itself."