Sunday, December 22, 2013

Public Communications: Repatriation of Foreign Workers Involved in the Little India Riots Draw Flak

Following what the Singapore authorities say was extensive investigations following the 8 December riots in Little India, 53 foreign workers were repatriated. This  drew swift responses from netizens and organizations like Maruah Singapore questioning if due process was given to the affected workers. Much of the concern stems from the fact that many of these workers would have borrowed heavily to come to work in Singapore and if they were indeed innocent of wrong doing, then repatriating them would be "unjust."
 
Once again, the purpose of this blog is not to question or criticize government policies or actions, but to use it as a case study to assist the student of crisis and public communications.
 
In this context, one can be surprised by the public reaction to the repatriation. After all, these are not Singaporeans and they are presumed to have done actions that jeopardized the safety and security of the nation. In the past, such an act of repatriation would not have received any notice by the general population, much less condemnation.  So what has changed?
 
In the context of public and crisis communications, it is dangerous to adopt the approach that if the public did not raise a concern before, they are not going to raise a concern now. Context and prevailing sentiments affect public response and each incident must be assessed against this backdrop in deciding a response. To illustrate, if an alleged incident of corruption was reported in the news and the public did not react, it does not mean that a second incident would not illicit a reaction. One occurrence can be seen as a one-off incident, while two will allude to a systemic issue. Hence, the communications director that bases his crisis communications strategy based on the first incident is doomed to fail.
 
In the context of the repatriation, my assessment is that netizens are not so concerned about whether the foreign worker is guilty or not. The prevailing sentiment is that our government is working with impunity without any check and balance. Thus, the ability to arbitrarily repatriate someone without "due process" is seen as another abuse of power.
 
If the communication director had the pulse of the ground, he or she could have anticipated the reaction and thus "prepared the ground" by addressing the issue proactively instead of reactively.
 
In short, public sentiments, is ever changing. To be effective as a communicator, one must never use past responses without considering the conditions present then and without factoring the conditions acting now.
 
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CW Fong & Associates is a boutique communications consultancy specializing in crisis communications. We have provided strategic counsel to numerous MNCs both in Singapore and the region with regards to reputation management matters.

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