Monday, November 29, 2010

Qantas A-380 Safety Crisis

Singapore's The Straits Times reported today that Qantas' Chief Executive Officer, Alan Joyce, has put the blame for the Qantas A-380 incident squarely on the shoulders of the Rolls-Royce's Trent 900 engine. The report quoted Alan Joyce as saying that “it was a new engine and it was absolutely clear that it had nothing to do with anything Qantas was doing”. Alan Joyce went on to substantiate his claims that in Qantas' own “research”, people are “aware that this is a Rolls-Royce problem” and that the “vast majority of people know that there's a problem with the design of the engines.” In his own assessment, Alan Joyce felt that Qantas' handling of the incident had probably enhanced its brand rather than damage it. When questioned about other incidents that have resulted in turnbacks of Qantas airplanes since the Nov 4th incident, Alan Joyce replied that “hundreds of them take place every year.”

From a crisis communications perspective, Qantas has obviously gone into crisis mode and Alan Joyce's statements are targeted at reassuring stakeholders on the safety of Qantas aircrafts.

My critique of Qantas' crisis communication efforts are as follows:

a. Poor Stakeholder Analysis. In my opinion, Qantas has failed to correctly identify the main stakeholder concern. In scenarios like this, stakeholders can accept that risks are part and parcel of flying. Stakeholder concern is thus whether the airline has in place the necessary measures to minimise the risk. By pushing the blame to Rolls-Royce, Qantas is implying that there is nothing wrong with their procedures. This is however contradicted by reports of several turnbacks that have occurred since the A-380 incident. To me, instead of blaming others, a more effective Message for Qantas would be to reassure their stakeholders on Qantas safety procedures and how it compares, or even exceeds, industry standards.

b. Tone. While I was not at the interview and thus cannot comment on Alan Joyce's actual tone, the “tone” of the newspaper report shows Qantas to be overly aggressive in pushing the blame to Rolls-Royce. Quotes of “our own research”, “a problem with the design of the engines”, and “the incident had probably enhanced its brand rather than damage it” all make Qantas appear desperate. This in my opinion, is more damaging than if Qantas had remained silent. The key lesson for PR Professionals here is the importance of correctly calibrating the Message. This is because it is one thing to raise the possibility of third party culpability, and another to rail-road the third party.

c. Use of Data. As mentioned in an earlier post, the use of survey data to support a Message is a double-edge sword. If the data can withstand scrutiny, then the Message will be believed. If however the data cannot withstand scrutiny, then the company's credibility is all but destroyed. By merely saying that “their own research showed”, it would appear to the lay-person that Qantas may be using questionable data to back-up its claim. In this instance, to make the data more credible, Alan Joyce should have offered more information about the scope of the survey i.e. who conducted it, what was the sample size, etc.

Qantas crisis communication efforts are underway and, by my assessment, off to a rocky start. Let's continue to monitor this campaign and see what else we can learn (both good and bad) from Qantas.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Blogging and the Freedom of Speech

On 25 Nov 2010, CNN reported the release of Kareem Amer from an Egyptian prison. Kareem Amer was jailed for "spreading information disruptive of public order and damaging to the country's reputation," "incitement to hate Islam" and "defaming the president of the republic," according to a statement from the Committee to Protect Journalists.

I am not here to say who is right or who is wrong.  However, assuming the integrity of the Egyptian judicial system, I am supportive of any governments' right to investigate if a crime has been committed and, if so, to take the blogger to task.

This is because, as I have said many times before in the blog, social networking websites like Friendster, FaceBook and Twitter have changed the information environment.  Bloggers can now reach out and influence as many individuals as professionally run news organizations.  Herein lies the danger as unlike professional journalists who abide by a code of ethics, bloggers are unregulated and may be motivated by personal agendas. In addition, the homogeneity of these social communities, and sense of bond among "friends" with common interests, make these communities susceptible to being easily manipulated.

I cite the Greek Riot in 2008 as an example where the death of a student, at the hands of the police, need not have degenerated into nation-wide violent protests. The incident could have remained contained pending investigations by the appropriate authorities. Unfortunately, irresponsible citizens began spreading unsubstantiated accusations of police brutality on social networking sites. This fanned anti-police sentiments which eventually spiraled out of control.  Many analysts are unanimous in their belief that social networking websites were the catalysts in the Greek riots of 2008.

Hence, while I believe that netizens have the right to express their views, the expression of these views must be done responsibly. The inciting of hate or violence is definitely not one freedom I support.  In my opinion, the Egyptian government was correct to investigate this case and, as they deemed a crime had been committed (according to their laws), taken the appropriate actions.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

MacPherson School Slashing Incident: Where No Comment Says More than you Think

On 24 Nov 2010, Singapore's The Straits Times reported the senseless slashing of a MacPherson Secondary School student in Jul 10 by a schoolmate after an accidental bumping incident. The mainstream newspaper concluded its article by stating that the school's principal “declined to comment” when asked about the incidence of fights amongst students in her school, and whether students can come to the school armed.

Once again, we see the use of “no comments” as a knee-jerk reaction to media queries. Unfortunately, the use of “no comment”, while convenient, implies that the school has something to hide. As a person unfamiliar with MacPherson Secondary School, my instinctive reaction to the newspaper report and the principal's decision not to comment gives me the perception that (a) fights occur frequently in MacPherson Secondary School; and (b) the school is a breeding ground for gangsters.

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately in this case, a quick research on the school shows the incident to be an isolated one.  And contrary to my perceptions, MacPherson Secondary School is a good neighbourhood school that has commendable achievements like winning the Ministry of Education's Achievement Award (Academic Value-Added) 2009.

From this case, the main take-away for PR Professionals is that saying or declining comment is a comment in itself.  Thus, instead of "making a negative comment", the school's principal should have capitalised on the opportunity to “set the record straight” and correct the mis-perception of MacPherson Secondary School as being a breeding ground for gangsters.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Jonathan Wong MOE Scholar Pleads Guilty to Child Pornography Charges (Part 2)

Having pleaded guilty to possessing child pornography videos, it is likely that Jonathan Wong's scholarship from the Singapore Ministry of Education will be revoked.  In addition, the social stigma of being perceived as a sex offender will stay with him for years to come.  As a young 22 year old with his whole life ahead of him, Jonathan Wong must now manage this crisis to enable himself to rebuild his reputation as well as his life. 

So what must an individual in a situation like this do?

In crisis communication situations involving individuals, it is often the natural instinct for the affected party to avoid the media.  This is based on the belief that avoiding the media will keep the individual "out of the news" which will then allow stakeholder attention to fade away.  This is a mistake.

Unlike the past where news stayed in the publics' eye as long as the newspaper printed the articles, in the era of social media, anything on the Internet is archived indefinitely.  Thus, while avoiding the main stream media may facilitate the fading of media attention, the Jonathan Wong story will remain on the Internet forever.  It is hence my opinion that Jonathan Wong must engage the media to "balance" some of the negative news out on him.

The key take-away for PR Professionals is this.  The information environment has changed.  The practise of avoiding further media attention to allow stakeholder attention to fade is outdated.  In the new/ social media environment, affected stakeholders should not avoid the media, but use it to "tell his side" of the story.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Jonathan Wong MOE Scholar Pleads Guilty to Child Pornography Charges

A Singapore Ministry of Education (MOE) scholar, studying at the University of York, has pleaded guilty to 17 charges of owning child pornography videos.  Identified by the main stream media as Jonathan Wong, the main stream media reported that Jonathan had been publicly caned while he was a student in Hwa Chong Instituition for peeping at students and staff.  Responding to media queries, the MOE issued the standard holding lines of (a) "we are looking into the matter"; and (b) "the Ministry will take the necessary disciplinary action against those scholars who have behaved inappropriately."

From a Crisis Communications perspective, the MOE could have better handled this unfolding crisis. 

Firstly, the MOE's holding line totally missed the key concern of stakeholders.  In this scenario, the fact that Jonathan Wong had been awarded a teaching scholarship despite having displayed questionable behaviour while in school is the key concern on the minds of stakeholders.  Stating that the Ministry would take actions against those who "behave inappropriately" is little consolation for concerned parents.

Secondly, it is my opinion that the MOE lost an excellent opportunity to build empathy with stakeholders by relying on the standard holding lines.  This is because the facts of the incident had presented themselves early enough in the crisis to present the MOE with an opportunity to put them on the same side as the stakeholder.  This the MOE could have done by simply acknowledging stakeholder concerns before going into the standard holding lines.

So what can PR Professionals learn from this?

In this scenario, it appears that the MOE did not conduct a proper stakeholder analysis before responding.  I postulate that if they had, they would have been able to identify stakeholders' key concerns and addressed it in the initial statement.  Hence, the performance of a stakeholder analysis is always a must.

Additionally, this scenario shows PR Professionals that not all crisis should be handled with the standard holding lines.  Sometimes, the opportunity presents itself and PR Professionals should seize these fleeting opportunities to empathise with stakeholders.  Doing this will put the stakeholder on your side which will then enable you to better handle the evolving crisis.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

TSA Full Body Scanner Images Controversy (Part 2)

In my blog posting yesterday, I explained that stakeholders have a hierarchy of values and that because the TSA did not fully understand their stakeholders, they had erroneously believed that the American public would value security over their rights for individual privacy.  Some readers have then asked me what could, or should, the TSA have done better to avoid this crisis.

To me, aside from having a better understanding of their stakeholders, there are 2 things that the TSA could have done better.

Firstly, I would have advised the TSA to initiate a "public consultation" on the introduction of the full body scanners.  While the TSA need not fully accept the publics' views, a public consultation would have enabled the affected stakeholders to be a participant in the decision-making process.  And as a participant, regardless of whether their views are adopted, the participant has a perceived stake in the decision and is more inclined to support it.  Additionally, in the absence of a thorough understanding of the stakeholder, a public consultation is akin to test marketing a product.  In this scenario, it is likely that a public consultation would have highlighted the strong opposition to the nation-wide implementation of the full-body scanners and allowed the TSA to adjust its approach.

Secondly, I would have advised the TSA to engage and develop an "independent" Key Communicator to sell its Message.  In this scenario, the ideal Key Communicators would be the pilots and flight attendants as they are the ones most affected by the implementation of the full body scanners due to their frequency of exposure.  In addition, pilots and flight attendants are seen as leaders in the aviation industry and their opinion would be credible.

Hence, it is my opinion, that the TSA could have avoided this crisis by simply (a) engaging the affected stakeholders via a public consultation; and (b) identifying and buying-in key communicators to sell its Message.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

TSA Full Body Scanner Images Controversy

I am reading with great interest the current controversy, and growing public backlash, surrounding the implementation of full body scanner in US airports.  In its implementation plan, the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) had obviously done their stakeholder analysis and correctly identified the 2 key stakeholders concerns of personal privacy and health concerns.  The TSA then went on to develop a comprehensive public communication package to address these concerns.

So what when wrong?

To know the answer, we must first understand that every stakeholder has a hierarchy of values.  For some, especially in Asian societies, the concept of individual sacrifices for the good of society is widely accepted.  For Americans on the other hand, this notion is not in their psyche and they have been brought-up believing in the pre-eminence of individual rights and freedom.  Hence, in my view, while the TSA correctly identified the issues, they incorrectly believed that in a post 9/11 world, the American public would value public safety over their individual rights for personal privacy.

The key take-away for PR Professionals is this.  While an organisation can correctly identify stakeholders concerns, this is not enough.  To be effective, the development of a communication package must be based on a thorough understanding of the stakeholder including, like this TSA crisis shows, the stakeholders' hierarchy of values.

WikiLeaks and Reputational Credits

In his blog posting titled "Can Singapore weather a WikiLeaks scenario?", David Boey talked about the value of building what I would call "reputational credits" with one's stakeholders before a crisis occurs.  Such "credits" would then provide the organisation with the operating space to effectively manage a developing crisis.

A good case in point is the recent mid-air engine explosion of a Qantas A380 (QF32) that forced an emergency landing at Singapore's Changi International Airport.  From the beginning of the crisis, the probable cause of the explosion was linked to either a design or manufacturing failure of the Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engine.  A part from a brief statement from Rolls-Royce, on the day of the incident, stating that they were working with Qantas to investigate the accident, Rolls-Royce remained silent on the matter until it released its findings four days later.

Even then, when a component in the engine was identified as the root cause, Rolls-Royce merely issued a statement to the effect that they were working with all affected parties to change the component in question.  From all assessments, Rolls-Royce's reputation has remained largely unaffected by this incident.

How is this possible?

One explanation is the strength of Rolls-Royce brand image.  As the manufacturer of luxury cars known for their outstanding engineering, quality and reliability, this perception in the minds of stakeholders has provided Rolls-Royce with the operational space to conduct their investigation, and sufficient reputational credits to acknowledge an error, correct it and move on.

What is important for PR Professionals to note is that these reputational credits were not built overnight and likely took the company many years of consistent branding and Messaging (when dealing with other crisis).  As mentioned in an earlier posting of mine, Crisis Communication Managers must adopt the long-term view and companies must be 100% truthful in all its dealings with their stakeholders.  Short-term "pain" should be endured with the goal of building reputational credits as opposed to taking the easier route of being less than truthful.  As can be seen in Rolls-Royce's recent handling of this crisis, the importance of reputational credits cannot be understated.  So build them while you have the time.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

QF32: Qantas A380 Emergency Landing

Singapore.  (13 Nov 2010)

On 4 Nov 2010, Qantas QF32 was forced to make an emergency landing at Singapore's Changi International Airport after one of its Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engines exploded in mid-air.

In this crisis situation, both Qantas and Rolls-Royce took the information initiative by coming forward to issue a News Release on the day of the incident.  In Qantas' case, its Chief Executive Alan Joyce attributed the incident to a "significant engine failure" and added that Qantas would suspend A380 services until they were completely confident that Qantas safety requirements had been met.  In contrast, Rolls-Royce pledged to work with Qantas to identify the cause and stated that they were making progress in their investigations.

An analysis shows that Qantas was quick to divert blame for the incident by insinuating that an engine design failure caused the incident, while Rolls-Royce chose to allow the facts to speak for itself without accepting responsibility nor attempted to divert responsibility elsewhere.  In a scenario where engine failure can be attributed to either design or maintenance failures, it is my assessment that Rolls-Royce's approach was the more strategic of the two.  This is because in the event that investigations reveal maintenance to be the cause, Qantas would be as trying to divert responsibility for the incident.

Thus, when the root cause of an incident is unclear, my advise to Crisis Communication Managers is to keep your initial News Release neutral.  Stakeholders are demanding but not unreasonable.  They understand that investigations take time and they will give you reasonable time to complete your investigations.  Hence, there is no need to rush to take a position that may eventually harm your company's brand image and reputation.

As in chess, the opening move can often determine the end game.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Value of Scenario Planning Exercise

Singapore. (7 Nov 10).  A 1986 Study by Fink, S (Crisis management: Planning for the inevitable. New York: AMACOM) reported that 89% of Fortune 500 companies CEOs believed the inevitability of a crisis impacting their business.  Strangely, in the same survey, only 50% of those same CEOs had developed a plan to handle it.  A more recent 2003 survey by the American Management Association showed that not much has changed.  Of the 146 companies surveyed, only 64% of them had a crisis management plan in place.

So why do heads of businesses acknowledge that business crisis are inevitable, and yet do nothing about it?  Based on my recent conversations with the heads of various companies, they all tell me the same thing - they know that a crisis is inevitable, but feel that it is impossible to prepare for as crisis can take an infinite number of form.  Hence, they feel that their time is better spent dealing with things they can predict.

While I agree with them that it is impossible to predict the exact nature of a crisis, I explained that effective crisis preparation does not require them to identify the exact nature of the crisis.  This is because aside from the actual Messages to be used, effective Crisis Management and Crisis Communication is also about having the right procedures in place.

In today's connected world, an incident can escalate to a crisis in a matter of hours.  Employees and managers must therefore know basic crisis management procedures like (a) what they can or cannot say and (b) how or who should handle media queries.

My proposal to them is to conduct scenario planning exercises to (a) identify existing procedural gaps; and (b) practise and familiarise key appointment holders in the thought processes behind dealing with a crisis communication situations.  While the context of the exercise is likely be different from any actual crisis the business will face, working through scenarios will inevitably better position the business to manage a crisis.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Nothing but the Truth: Poll Shows that Young Singaporeans Are Proud of Their Country

Singapore.  (3 Nov 2010).

YahooNews! Singapore published an article today by Angela Lim quoting Education Minister and Second Minister for Defence, Ng Eng Hen, as saying that over 90% of students are proud to be Singaporeans.  Mr Ng's statement is likely linked to last week's question posed by Nanyang Technological University student Mr Lim Zi Rui to Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong about how many young people are losing their sense of ownership in Singapore.  Since Mr Lim's comments, the Internet has been set ablaze with many netizens questioning the validity of these figures and the government has gone into Crisis Communication mode.

As mentioned, Crisis Communication in the Era of Social Media occurs in a perfect information environment.  Anything posted on the Internet becomes permanent and Crisis Communication Messages must be based on 100% truth.  In this instance, while Mr Ng did not lie, he may not have been 100% truthful.  A netizen found a 2007, Ministry of Education Executive Summary for the Committee on National Education which supports Mr Ng's statement that 90% of students are proud to be Singaporeans.  The Report however also went on to state that 14% of Primary 6 students, 20% of Secondary 4 students, and 23% of University students surveyed disagreed with the statement that "if I could live anywhere in the world, I would still choose Singapore as my home."

While Mr Ng cannot be faulted for telling a lie, I suspect his credibility (as well as the government's) will be impacted as stakeholders expect their elected leaders to tell the whole truth.  Half-truths will only create doubts in the stakeholders mind and affect the credibility of any future statements.

The key-lesson for PR Professionals from this incident is that we operate in a perfect information environment.  Crisis Communication therefore requires the company or organisation to be 100% truthful.

Last call - Tiger Airways must get its act together

Singapore.  (3 Nov 2010).

The Straits Times today published a Forum letter on Tiger Airways frequent cancellation and rescheduling of flights, and the poor level of customer service.  The letter went on to question Tiger Airways' decision to add more flights and destinations when it is clear that they are unable to cope with existing demands.

From a crisis communication perspective, it is important for Tiger Airways to adequately address the writer's concerns in a timely and honest manner.  Timeliness is important as the peak travel season is around the corner and failure to address stakeholder concerns can impact the airline's bottom line.  Honesty is necessary as the 'perfect information environment' will reveal any lies and being dishonest will impact the airlines credibility and reputation.

In this instance, travel during the year-end school holidays constitute a significant portion of the airlines operating profits and stakeholders are making travel plans will likely be affected by this negative publicity.  The response by Tiger Airways must therefore seek to reassure stakeholders on Tiger Airlines' reliability.  However, "words" can only do so much and if a pattern of non-performance exists, it may be necessary for Tiger Airways to initiate some sort of service assurance guarantee where non-performance will entitle the customer to some sort of "compensation".

The main take-away for PR Professionals from this incident that we must be aware of the "bigger picture" and its impact on the company or organisation we serve.  PR Messages, aside from protecting the Brand Image of the company, may also need to integrate with sales and marketing to be effective.

Let's continue to monitor this and see how Tiger Airways respond ....

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