Avoiding the crisis – when less is more

It is hard to gauge how effective the contrition was in terms of damage control
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By Casey Chua

Earlier this year, the former chief executive officer of a prominent food and beverage company in Singapore pleaded guilty in court to ‘voluntarily causing hurt and intentionally causing alarm’ to a 13-year-old boy during an incident in 2019.

The hapless teenager was punched in the head by the defendant, a 44-year-old French national.

The food and beverage company issued a media statement after the court hearing, affirming that the embattled ex-CEO “remains a valuable member of our management team and has our full and unwavering support” and was, “helping us stay afloat amidst the ongoing COVID restrictions”.

The company could have chosen to remain agnostic or to simply decline to comment as the matter was still before the courts. Indeed, companies usually reserve judgment until the courts have done so. Alternatively, companies could buy time by stating that an internal investigation will be conducted before they decide on the next steps.

Unsurprisingly, the company faced a public backlash for siding with their leader. Scores of incensed netizens took to social media platforms calling for a boycott of the company’s dining establishments.

The volte-face by the company was just as swift when they realised that cancel culture was not something that could be taken lightly. After expressing support for the then-CEO, a decision was taken the very next day to sack him, ostensibly to deescalate the social media furore that ensued.

In a Facebook post by the company, it apologised if any of its previous statements had been “misconstrued as condoning his actions as we do not support violence in any way.”

The post went on to say that “we strongly condemn his actions and all acts of violence and would like to reassure the public that his personal actions do not in any way reflect our core values”.

It is hard to gauge how effective the contrition was in terms of damage control. Public opinion online was divided on the company’s apology and abrupt change in position. The cynical ones felt the apology was insincere and made under duress while the magnanimous ones appealed for calm and forgiveness.

What was certain was that the entire episode could have been avoided in the first place.

In crisis communications, we always impress upon the importance of maintaining clear and consistent messaging. It is critical in building or regaining the trust of your stakeholders who have been most impacted.

To make a complete U-turn only after the court of public opinion has turned against you only shows how tone-deaf the company is and how ill-conceived the initial crisis communications strategy was. During a crisis, an organisation quickly loses credibility when it has to backpedal for the wrong reasons.

And that is why Navigate Response takes great care to help our clients formulate sound strategies and key messages before they start to communicate during a crisis.

We help them identify their audience, especially whom the key stakeholders are insofar as the crisis relates to them, so that we can better understand what their concerns are and how those concerns can be addressed.

With more conversations taking place in the online realm, we keep a close eye and ear for relevant online sentiments so that we can advise on messaging that resonates with the stakeholders they seek to inform and influence.

While it is indeed important to communicate swiftly and decisively during a crisis, it must not be in the form of knee-jerk reactions which can lead to irreversible damage.

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