Thursday, May 29, 2014

Crisis Communications: The CPF Saga - What are the real issues and concerns?

In a recent crisis communications training workshop, I was asked my views about the ongoing saga concerning the CPF, the allegations of misappropriation by the PM and the raising of the minimum sum.
 
My response was that the government’s responses were addressing the symptoms (i.e. issues) and not the disease (i.e. concerns). This is because I do not believe that any objective Singaporean will believe that the PM has misappropriated CPF funds, nor will they believe that our government is bankrupt and are thus unable to honor the obligations of the CPF. All these are just “lightening rods” which rabble-rousers like Roy Ngerng are using to stoke public sentiments and to build political capital.

 
In my opinion, responding to these issues will be an endless (and fruitless) endeavor as they do not address the real concerns of the stakeholders. As such, they will inevitably resurface in another form. Additionally, responding to these issues will only pull the government down into a “tactical” battle that will not only suck up its resources but embroil them in a battle without any possible hope of victory.
 
As a crisis communications consultant, I have consistently advise my clients to look past the issues in a crisis and to only address the concerns of the stakeholders. In this instance, it is highly unlikely that any objective Singaporean will quibble over why the CPF is only paying 2.5 % interest while the GIC earns 6%; or that they want to withdraw all their CPF upon retirement and then starve in their twilight years. While I can appreciate that the Singapore government is on the proverbial ropes to show that they are listening to Singaporeans, a more effective response would be to understand the concerns of the public and address that. In this case, the concern is not so much the shape or form of the CPF (or even the minimum sum), but rather how am I supposed to live when I retire.
 
In my opinion, to end this “crisis” decisively, the Singapore government needs to address the concern about life after retirement.
 
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Please note that this post is not a political commentary but is used to derive learning lessons with regards to crisis communications. I welcome discussions on the merits of the crisis communications concepts discussed, but will delete political commentaries.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Roy Ngerng, PM Lee and the Coup in Thailand

As I observe (and study) the unfolding saga of the coup in Thailand, I believe that the military Junta will find itself in an uphill struggle to gain complete control of the country. Unlike previous coups where information was centrally controlled and occupation of media centres allowed the military the ability to control information flow, the prevalence of social media has made it impossible (without draconian measures) to control what people are saying and to shape perceptions. In fact as social media begins to spread news of a citizenry opposed to the coup (whether true or not), such "news" is enough to trigger a movement against the military. Once again, the power of social media to defy censorship and be used to rally people is being demonstrated.

Without going into a discussion on the merits of the coup in Thailand, it is suffice to say that information spread on the Internet has the ability to influence large numbers of people. The danger comes when people are manipulated by those with ill-intent. False information, rumors, smear campaigns and outright deceit on social media platforms can rally people and literally topple legitimately elected governments.

As such, SG Social Media Guru is a firm believer in the responsible use of social media and it is our opinion that PM Lee Hsien Loong's decision to sue local blogger Roy Ngerng is an important line in the sand. If Roy's accusations are left unchecked and unchallenged, these unsubstantiated accusations can gain traction via social media and influence the perception of the less discerning citizenry. The concept of freedom of expression must be twined with the principle of accountability. One without the other will lead to anarchy.

Similar to a case of a person who deliberately shouts fire in a crowded room to cause a stampede is held accountable for his actions, users of social media should also be held accountable for what they say and do on social media. Without this line in the sand, a multi-racial society like Singapore is one step away from anarchy.
 
Social media is a powerful tool that users must use responsibly. If not, then it is the responsibility of the state to ensure that those who abuse it are punished. As the saying goes, "with great powers come great responsibility." 
 
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Sunday, May 18, 2014

Public Relations: A sunset industry ...

In one of my earlier post, I talked about the death of the Public Relations agency and the rise of the social media consultancy. After my recent conversation with the head of a government corporate communications division, I am even more convinced.

During our conversation, the issue of crisis communications came up and I shared with him a crisis communications framework which CW Fong & Associates had developed based on academic research and refined via real world application. Before I could even finish explaining the framework, I was brushed aside with the comment that he had no time for theory.

I responded by asking how then did his division manage crisis and his was "based on experience". I then explained that while experience was good, there were two major issues with such an approach. Firstly, experience only helps if you had previously managed a similar incident and learnt from it. What about new incidences? How useful would experience be in unfamiliar incidences? Secondly, without a framework, how would you know what went well and what went wrong? By managing incidences by the seat of your pants, the organization does not learn and hence does not improve on its ability to deal with crisis. Needless to say, our conversation was cut short and I was shown the door rather quickly.

I have said this before and I will say this again. Corporate Communications or PR is dying simply because the pinnacle appointments are being held by dinosaurs. And just like their name sakes, these PR directors will soon become extinct as they simply refuse to accept the fact that communications has changed and that they are ill-equipped to manage it in the new information environment. Rejecting new ideas does not make it less true. Just like continuously repeating that the sky is green, will not make the sky less blue or the fact that the sky is not green.

In my opinion, the sorry state of our government's popularity among the electorate is not from a lack of trying to serve the people. The sorry state is caused by the fact that government leaders have not replaced the dinosaurs with people who know how to communicate in the new information environment.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Mark Franklin's Apology - Why it failed ....

Once again it appears that the behavior of an expatriate in Singapore has offended Singaporean. This time, is it Mr. Mark Franklin, the Managing Director of Piaggio in Singapore in what appears to be a road rage incident. While I cannot, or will not, take sides in this matter simply because I was not there and (despite the in-vehicle video) it appears to be a "he said she said" kind of thing, what I will say is that similar to the Anton Casey incident, Mark's apology (while swiftly and personally delivered) did not have the desired effect of quelling public outrage.

As a crisis communications consultant, let us analyze where Mark (and Anton) went wrong ...
 
Mark Franklin's Apology

"First and foremost, I want to apologise to the anonymous driver with whom I had the disagreement shown in the video, and to all who felt offended after watching the silent clip.”

“I humbly admit that I reacted in an inappropriate manner and I deeply regret my response.  I lost my patience and for that I am truly sorry.”

“I would like to stress that in the years that I  lived in Singapore, I have built close friendships with many Singaporeans and have greatly enjoyed living and working here. I have absolutely no prejudices against the people of Singapore, or of any other population.”

“Precisely because of the affection and friendships that link me to Singapore, once again I hope that my apology will be accepted by the anonymous driver and by all.”

Mark”

Reputation Management
 
The first principle of reputation management is to understand and address stakeholder concerns. In this instance, a stakeholder analysis will reveal that public anger centers on the assumption that Mark leads a "privilege" lifestyle in Singapore and that he considers himself "superior" to the locals. As such, any apology or statement from Mark that does not deal with this concern is destined to fail. With this understanding of the context for the public anger, it is clear that Mark's apology failed to address this concern.

The second mistake that Mark and Anton made is that they did not offer any form of contrition. To stakeholders used to PR spin, an apology is just words if it is not followed by some "self-punishment". The willingness to "punish" oneself is taken by stakeholders to represent sincerity. Once again, in both Mark's and Anton's apology, no mention of any acts of "contrition" were offered, resulting in accusations of lack of insincerity.
 
As a communications consultancy, specializing in reputation management, it is CW Fong & Associates' belief that both Mark Franklin and Anton Casey could have better handled the negative fall-out from their actions if they had addressed stakeholder concerns in their apology and back that apology with a show of contrition.
 
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CW Fong & Associates is a Singapore-based communications consultancy specializing in reputation management. We have consulted with Singapore and international companies and celebrities on incidences pertaining to attacks on their reputation. For a confidential consultation, contact us via Justin[a]cwfongandassociates.com



Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Failure of the Public Relations Agency and the Rise of the Social Media Consultancy

In recent years, Public Relations (PR) agencies are struggling to find their role in the new information environment. The is because the proliferation of social media, which has made communications less hierarchical, has effectively eliminated the PR agency's intermediary role.

As social media (which is essentially free) begins to dominate the information environment and companies start to own their own communications platforms (like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram), the traditional revenue sources of media placement fees of PR agencies are drying up. Additionally, the ease of using social media and creating powerful online content has also created a situation where companies increasingly go in-house and rely on their own marketing and communications teams to do the "PR" work.

At SG Social Media Guru, we literally saw the writing on the wall and as such have deliberately positioned ourselves as a social media consultancy as opposed to being a public relations agency. We believe that the new information environment requires a fundamental mind-set shift to see social media as a tool for not only engagement, but also a tool for positioning and branding.

One of the main changes we believe that will separate the truly successful company from the rest is the use of employees as brand ambassadors. In this new paradigm, branding a company no longer relies on a centralized campaign led by a PR agency, but on every employee who is now taught how to brand and position the company and are actively encouraged to communicate this to their social media network. The power of this approach is that the company:

A. Taps on the personal network of their employees. This is particularly important for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that do not have a large advertising and promotion budget. Assuming each employee has a social media network of 300 friends, a company of 10 will automatically have an "organic reach" of 3,000. And, if the employees are taught how to effectively use social media, the multiplier effect of shares, likes and comments on Facebook could literally increase this reach by a factor of 10.

B. Capitalizes on the word of mouth effect. As friends believe friends, the likelihood of an advertising message being believed when it comes via social media is infinitely higher then if it came via a newspaper advertisement. The impact of "spontaneous" employee sharing on social media is equivalent to that of word of mouth advertising, which studies have repeatedly shown to be the most effective form of advertising.

In short, in our opinion, social media will in the near future replace traditional main stream media as the primary advertising platform. PR agencies that continue to cling to the old business model of relying on media placement and ad development fees will eventually fail, while PR agencies that make the switch to becoming a social media consultancy will thrive. At SG Social Media Guru, our core "PR" business is in (a) the training of employee as brand ambassadors; (b) the offering of online reputation management services; and (c) in owning a full suite of social media platforms upon which clients can use to complement their own social media channels - this is similar to the current practice of paying newspapers for advertisements.