It is nothing new for us to hear of crises that surface, suddenly and unexpectedly in countries all around the world, causing significant impact on the realm and its populace. Crisis is an unplanned situation or rather threat that suddenly dawns upon an entity, be it a nation or an organisation, often out of nowhere, which may threaten the very stability of that entity.
The COVID-19 outbreak is the latest scenario of a crisis that had suddenly emerged, stealthily weaving its way into societies of every nation, with negative effect on health, economy and the daily lives of the population. The era of this pandemic has been the “Game-Changer of All Game-Changers”. It has stopped us all in our tracks – completely and decisively!
When faced with a major crisis such as this, the ‘communication’ aspect of the crisis should be at the forefront (although often forgotten) to ensure that the crisis would be well-managed. This ‘crisis communication’ is an aspect of communication and delivery of information that is crucial whenever an entity is challenged by a crisis. In the context of COVID-19, the bearer of the communication was the Government, utilising the media platform, to ensure that the key messages and narratives were effectively delivered to the ‘audience’, namely the public at large. Imagine if there had been a failure in this ‘delivery system’, the impact to the nation would have been catastrophic. What this points out to, is how important it is for every country or organisation to have in place, an effective and efficient crisis management strategy in anticipation of potential crises.
An important component of crisis management strategy is the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and a key facet to the SOPs is responding promptly, effectively, with precision and confidence when crisis arises and the days following. Different groups of stakeholders with differing needs and interests may need to be informed and different ‘outreach’ action-plans may have to be initiated to cater to these differences. During these times, public perception should be second to none, as the image of the organisation can be positively or negatively impacted due to failure of communications.
Broadly, the SOPs of managing crises include:
- anticipating and identifying the type of crisis;
- knowing and understanding the details of the crisis;
- putting in place the Crisis Management Team (which should comprise the Response Team and the Communications Team);
- identifying and knowing the stakeholders (including the media);
- choosing the correct spokespersons and providing them with adequate training;
- drawing up the relevant processes to be adhered to by all parties;
- developing, planning and implementing communication activities (including media relations and stakeholders’ outreach); and
- content – key messages and narratives.
Sometimes countries may be well-prepared to respond to crises operationally, yet may fail ‘big-time’ when it comes to the communication part. Let us recapitulate on the tragedy of MH370 in 2014, where very poor communications in the early days of the disaster, led to a perception that the crisis was badly managed. As the former Prime Minister, Dato’ Seri Najib Tun Razak acknowledged, “…but we didn’t get everything right. In the first few days, we were so focused on trying to find the aircraft that we did not prioritise our communications”. In this context, no matter how good the operational response aspect of crisis is, if communication is bad, your audience will perceive that you have failed in both respects.
Ultimately, effective communication during crisis is very important to reduce or even avoid conflict and help foster a sense of trust in and support for an organisation, in this case, being the Government. This ‘trust’ issue is crucial to ensure that the public is convinced and accept the information that is being disseminated and believe that this pandemic is being well-managed, with effective steps being taken to contain the same.
At the heart of winning trust is transparency, which is crucial in dealing with stakeholders during a crisis. Trust can only be built if an organisation is perceived to be transparent in its managing of the crisis and perceived as being transparent in the information that it communicates. During a crisis, hiding crucial information from the key stakeholders will cause more harm than good.
Nevertheless, it is important to note that being transparent does not mean an organisation should allow every information to be shared outrightly, without effectively managing the same. An organisation or even the government should not release anything and everything about the crisis at hand or any matter surrounding it ‘in the wild’. It all boils down to knowing the correct timing to release certain information and the extent of the information to be released.
However, one major weakness of many organisations is the lack of transparency internally. This scenario can especially be destructive in situations of crises. Internal transparency is key to ensuring that the communications team within an organisation would understand the crisis concerned from the onset, enabling the team to effectively manage relevant stakeholders, including the media. Unfortunately, in reality, communications teams would be the ‘last to know’ which brings about many problems in managing stakeholders and in turn, leads to the failure in winning over confidence.
In the case of COVID-19 where the role of the public is central in helping to curb the spread of this pandemic, communications must therefore instil a ‘believe system’ in the hearts and minds of these recipients of information, towards the bearer of the information (being the Government) and the information received.
For Malaysia, from the time we were first hit by this pandemic, we saw how the Government machinery started to move, including its communications aspect, which led to the centralisation of resources and various aspects of jurisdiction. The announcement of the first Movement Control Order (MCO) immediately shifted various jurisdictional aspects of managing this pandemic totally into the hands of the National Security Council (NSC). This included the coordination of relevant policies and SOPs related to security measures, public order and other matters to ensure the safety and security of the Nation and its people, all with the full cooperation of relevant ministries and agencies.
What had been apparent throughout this pandemic scenario was the excellent coordination between agencies and authorities involved, placing communications at the heart of the crisis. All information and announcements were effectively channelled through various communications platforms, mainly the mainstream media and the digital realm, enabling effective and systematic coordination of the public. Key to this communication process was an effective crisis communications SOPs which included identifying authorised spokespersons to share accurate and authentic information with the public. Development of matters pertaining to this crisis was shared on a daily basis, together with updates on the government’s efforts and initiatives, in dealing with this pandemic.
The same held true in respect of communication on the management of the MCO and other related decisions, through daily Press Conferences held by a Senior Minister, to inform the public of latest decisions. On the other hand, any information or decision on the potential extension of the MCO would only be made by the Prime Minister. Clearly, the clarity in the flow of the ‘Chain of Command’ reflects a well thought-of, smooth, orderly and systematic process and SOP, in dealing with this crisis.
Another key aspect of communication, particularly in times of crises is ensuring that the correct platform is used. In the case of Malaysia, various social media platforms were created and utilised, including the ‘Telegram’ application and Facebook to disseminate all the latest information, updates and decisions made by the authorities, allowing the public to obtain important, accurate updates quickly and effectively.
At the same time, members of the public were also able to obtain the latest information from a one-stop operations centre with its own hotline number. They were also able to contact the Response Centre for any feedback relating to COVID-19. Undoubtedly, the flow of information was pivotal to the entire process, allowing proper managing and handling of the whole situation. In fact, the crises management team were very effective in managing fake or erroneous news, in their speedy reaction to deny or correct such news through their ‘False News Notifications’. Such notifications were made by the ‘Quick Response Team’ of the Ministry of Communications and Multimedia Malaysia (KKMM).
There are many aspects and facets to look into when it comes to crises communications – understanding the crisis, the key facets in managing crises, the SOPs, managing stakeholders, media relations and the implementation of communications (including, choosing the correct spokespersons, press conferences, key messages, holding statements, media statements and releases, managing families of victims, use of social media and delivery of messages). The key thrust would be to ensure that sound and practical decisions are made to handle communications in a complex and perhaps long-running situation.
In managing the communications aspect of crises, there may be differences in approach by different practitioners. Regardless of the differences, there are common practises that form the backbone of and are integral to crisis communication. First, the importance of ‘rapid response’ – the longer an organisation takes to respond, the more credibility it loses, making it difficult to gain trust. Second, selecting the correct spokespersons who are able to effectively update, inform, reassure and give instructions to a wide-range of stakeholders. Such spokespersons must be flexible, compassionate and sensitive to the differences in culture, race and religion, when addressing different groups of stakeholders.
In the case of MH370 tragedy, the government at that time, may not have fared well in managing the communications aspects, in its early days. Nevertheless, as time passed, they learned and made significant improvements, especially when the acting transport Minister then, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein took over the reins of communication.
In our present instance however, although the threat of COVID-19 is far from over, we can at the very least, take solace in the fact that the managing of crisis communication had so far, run smoothly, orderly, efficiently and effectively. This had in turn, led to the growth of confidence and believe in the information received as well as the overall management of the pandemic, by the Government.
Prof. Mohd Said Bani C.M. Din
Managing Director, bzBee Consult Sdn. Bhd.
Exco Member, PRCA Malaysia
Adjunct Professor, Taylor’s University