“When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant and effective.” — Stephen R Covey (1932-2012), American educator and bestselling author
The Chinese calendar with its rotating zodiac animal cycle said goodbye to the Year of the Rat and welcomed the Year of the Ox. A powerful animal that is popular in Asian annals, the Ox is believed to have the ability to transform the negative challenges of the outgoing Rat Year into positive outcomes this year.
According to my friendly neighbourhood geomancer or feng shui master, this new year will be luckier than the last. She also says the Ox can save us from disaster and help reconstruct our world because the Ox is a builder. So, if we can follow through and bring to completion the good work we started last year, establish a tight routine and stay with a structure that can bring a bountiful harvest, we will prosper in the forthcoming Year of the Tiger. Oh, if only it was that easy.
“This year,” she says, “no additional explosive or catastrophic events are expected to occur, so it is a favourable year for economic recovery or consolidation.”
“But,” she cautions, “this is also the year when most of us will feel the full weight of our responsibilities.” Not to worry, she assures me, the Ox has strong shoulders!
The Chinese New Year celebration was rather muted this year. The confusion regarding what was going to be allowed and what was not, in the days preceding the new year, cast a pall and dampened the holiday spirit. It is sad that cultural insensitivities (in a country famed for its multicultural diversity) were paraded for all to see. Perceptions of what was done cannot be undone, and the “powers that be” had a major PR disaster on their hands.
How a government agency handles public health issues, natural disasters and, yes, even communication regarding national celebrations can make or break the image held by its stakeholders. The recent policy flip-flop on show was not a pretty sight.
We are aware that many crises may hit a government. While preventing these incidents is ideal, it is not always possible. The best practice is to have a plan in place to handle the crisis before it happens. But when an unprecedented pandemic hits a nation hard, there is no time to commit to a pre-planned path.
However, regardless of the type of crisis a government has on its hands, people will be looking to it for information. It is up to you, the power holders, to deliver it in a way that is consistent, clear and understandable.
It is the best to give your citizens, your stakeholders, all the confirmed information you have in order to ensure everyone is informed. This is no time to fly by the seat of your pants. As you develop the messages that are important to share, be consistent and frequent in your communication. During a crisis, stakeholders want updates regularly — even if there is nothing “new”. And they want a two-way system of communication. It is not enough to simply orchestrate an official public address and not hold a press conference after that to add granularity to your message. Millions of enquiring minds want to know. We deserve to know.
At the core of managing a national crisis such as this pandemic is cooperation between government departments. The everyday Malaysian can be forgiven for not noticing this. It has not been effectively communicated. This is no time for power silo-building. Our many ministries must be able to receive and forward alerts, alert those concerned within their organisation and contact and collaborate with other relevant agencies.
It is imperative that methods for communicating across Putrajaya and the state capitals are set in place and that everyone is in the know when a crisis hits. By having a strong communication network between departments, ministries and states, you, the government, can better ensure that all aspects of the crisis are addressed and responsibilities can be delegated efficiently.
When you share information with the public and other stakeholders, you need to do it with candour, credibility and concern. Your spokespersons need to be honest and trustworthy. When delivering difficult news, they need to be sympathetic to any victim, deliver an apology if appropriate and, most importantly, be genuine.
If your spokesperson cannot deliver information in an honest, trustworthy and genuine manner, they can do more harm to you, the government, than good. Communicating in a crisis is difficult, and that is why you need to make sure you have experienced advisers at your side. Your citizens’ trust in you is directly affected by how swiftly and efficiently you react in a crisis situation.
As early as 2011, a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development on Future Global Shocks (OECD, 2011) highlighted the vulnerabilities of our interconnected, global economy. In the wake of the recent public health and widespread local financial crises, our leaders should be acutely aware that further systemic shocks could severely challenge our fragile economic recovery, social cohesion and even political stability.
While it is true that we were blindsided by the enormity and velocity of the pandemic, some nations reacted quicker to it and saved many lives and gained the upper hand to the delight of their citizens. Yes, no one saw it coming, but some handled the crisis better than their counterparts.
At the risk of being repetitive, the capacity to coordinate crisis management is a fundamental element of good governance, as it tests a government’s capacity to provide the appropriate responses at the right time in order to protect its citizens and businesses and mitigate the impact of disasters.
We, the voters, are acutely aware of your handling (or mishandling) of the present crisis. We continue to follow the standard operating procedures (SOPs) you introduced to govern operations and coordination because we want to win this war against the dreaded virus. But we are also conscious of playbooks that are half-thought-through, implemented and withdrawn. We are also conscious of the different set of SOPs being applied to ministers.
We, your citizens, know we deserve better than that. In our eyes, our government must provide robust leadership in crisis management and may be held accountable in the end if they do not.
Zakie Shariff is executive chairman of Kiarafics Sdn Bhd, a strategy consulting group. He is also the adjunct professor at the Faculty of Industrial Management in Universiti Malaysia Pahang.