When crisis strikes: What businesses can learn from Ivan Lim and Raeesah Khan
One dropped out before the hustings began while another went on to become the youngest elected Member of Parliament in Singapore. Both People’s Action Party (PAP) candidate Ivan Lim and Workers’ Party (WP) candidate Raeesah Khan garnered so much attention during the Singapore General Election that some have lamented that they eclipsed the more important policy issues.
And that’s exactly what a crisis does. Often, it diverts attention from your core product, no matter how solid your offering is.
If we view the political parties through our corporate lens, PAP is like an incumbent multi-national corporation while WP is like a small business. While both parties may offer different products and plans (for East Coast or otherwise), they are basically selling the same thing – legitimacy to be our voice in the Parliament. We as consumers “buy” the product with our votes.
And as both parties ramped up to make their sales pitch, it was found that their newer salespeople may have been found wanting. Lim was criticised for his character; there was no criminal wrongdoing. Khan is still being investigated by the police for “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion or race” in two social media posts.
This is not a political commentary and I will not be looking at the allegations levelled against Lim and Khan. However this is a unique opportunity to study how two entities respond to a similar crisis ceteris paribus, and what businesses can learn from it.
1. Speed is of the essence
Most companies are prepared for the big crises – an accident in the factory or a defect in the product. Many are not that ready for the ones that start as chatter on social media which can quickly turn into a full-blown forest fire within hours.
Aspersions were cast on Lim on the same day he was announced as a PAP. It started with one Facebook post and started gaining momentum quickly when other people started posting about their negative experiences. It was two days later that PAP vice-chairman Masagos Zulkifli addressed the online criticism of Lim, when a question was posed to him at a virtual press conference. Lim responded the next day.
For Khan, it was reported in the media at 4.35pm on July 5 that she was being investigated. Late that night, accompanied by WP leaders and her team-mates, she made a public apology in an unscheduled press conference.
Pro-tip: At the first sign of any rumblings on the ground, be proactive and address it as soon as possible. You cannot hope for the best and wait for the news cycle to save you. In the era of social media, a one-day delay in response is akin to two weeks during pre-Facebook times. The longer you wait, the more you look like you’re trying to hide skeletons in the closet.
2. Own your screw-ups
It’s natural to want to deflect blame and point to someone else when something goes wrong. One can trace it all the way back to Adam, who said it was Eve’s fault when asked why he ate the forbidden fruit.
When dealing with a crisis that involves injuries or deaths, companies are careful in wording their holding statement so that even their “non-apology” cannot be taken as admission of fault due to legal and insurance implications.
But what do you do when the crisis does not revolve around safety issues for example when someone says you’re a jerk or when you’re accused of causing social division?
In Lim’s press release response to the criticisms, he gave reasons for his actions (he got his men to book in earlier because they had an early start the next day), a whataboutsim (other people at Keppel had done well under him) and a tinge of playing the victim (“This test came sooner than I expected”).
Reading from a prepared statement, Khan apologized for her posts, gave the reason behind them (“I feel really passionate about minority issues regardless of race”) and took accountability for her actions.
Pro tip: If you dropped the ball, by and large, it is recommended that you offer an apology, even if it’s a half-apology. This is especially important for MNCs because consumers will already have cast you in the role of the Goliath bully anyway. You may not agree with their interpretation of events but they are certainly aggrieved by something you did. This is where empathy – putting yourself in their shoes – comes in
3. Put a face to it
When things go south, it is tempting to hide behind a holding statement because it’s safe. You can craft the words carefully, get the press release vetted by your legal team and just refer the media to it. You don’t have to worry about making slips like the infamous “I’d like my life back” line by the BP CEO during one of the largest oil spills in history, which made it into every crisis communication manual of what not to say.
But people relate to people, not written statements. The more you try to hide behind a statement, the more you feed the rumour mill. Lim’s press release raised more questions than it answered but Khan’s appearance before the media drew praise for her courage to face the music.
The next question is, whose face do you put to it then? A spokesperson who is defensive can worsen things. Seniority matters too; it signals how important the organisation views the issue. In Khan’s case, WP leader Pritam Singh fielded the questions from the media with great equanimity.
(Another example of crisis comms done well in my opinion, though not related to this post, is how Minister Lawrence Wong and Minister Gan Kim Yong continue to front the press conferences during COVID-19 stoically and calmly despite the drawn out nature of the virus. It signals transparency and a willingness to to keep the public informed and updated even though they may not have all the answers amid the uncertainties.)
Pro tip: As a business, think about what your consumers want to know in a crisis. They will want answers to how did this happen, why did it happen. Even if you don’t have all the answers at that point, it’s always better to say “I don’t know yet” to be upfront and transparent from the start. If you try to hide negative information, and it leaks, it’ll make you look even guiltier.
Finally, preparation is key. Trite but true. But preparation goes beyond having a crisis comms playbook and holding statements. It’s about knowing your target audience and fostering community. Political commentators pointed to young voters as one reason for WP’s historic win in Sengkang GRC. Most of the conversations around Lim was taking place on Facebook while Khan was drawing strong support on Instagram.
For businesses that usually share the same content on both Facebook and Instagram, you’d want to rethink how to engage with your followers on those channels especially during a crisis, given the differences in demographics, ideals and exposure to the rest of the world.
But if you’ve put in the hard work to connect with both your supporters and detractors by listening to them and tailoring your messaging and product to them, a crisis can become an opportunity that shines a spotlight on your values and actually enhances how the public sees you. Just look at WP.