Learn to be more skill­ful in govern­ment cri­sis man­age­ment

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - HKCOMMENT - LAU NAI- KE­UNG The author is a mem­ber of the Com­mis­sion on Strate­gic De­vel­op­ment.

As Hong Kong peo­ple re­ally be­gan over­see­ing Hong Kong only af­ter 1997, the learn­ing curve has been steep. Des­per­ate to ac­quire the true art of gov­er­nance, our of­fi­cials and politi­cians some­times turn to books and movies. There was a time when copies of the BBC satire Yes, Min­is­ter (and the se­quel Yes, Prime Min­is­ter) were given out as gifts in the cir­cle, and guid­ance was sought in US po­lit­i­cal drama The West Wing. As the need to deal with coun­ter­parts up north in­creases, fic­tions about pol­i­tics on the main­land, such as the pop­u­lar Of­fi­cial­dom Note­book, have also grabbed lo­cal of­fi­cials’ at­ten­tion re­cently.

If movies re­ally can help, of­fi­cials in Hong Kong should be watch­ing Scan­dal, ABC’s po­lit­i­cal thriller tele­vi­sion se­ries star­ring Kerry Wash­ing­ton. The show’s pro­tag­o­nist, Olivia Pope, is par­tially based on Judy Smith, spe­cial as­sis­tant and deputy press sec­re­tary to then Pres­i­dent Ge­orge H. W. Bush. The story fo­cuses on how Olivia Pope’s cri­sis man­age­ment firm, Pope & As­so­ciates, pro­tects the pub­lic im­age of its clients and makes sure their se­crets never get out. As the show is co­pro­duced by Judy Smith her­self, it re­ally may re­veal a thing or two as to how the White House han­dles crises.

Olivia Pope’s ap­proach is not that com­pli­cated. While the sit­u­a­tions and the so­lu­tions vary from episode to episode, af­ter tak­ing in a case the first thing she does is, in­vari­ably, get to the bot­tom of the facts. In the next stage, she has to size her clients up and form an opin­ion be­fore they are judged by the press or the law. “In this mo­ment, we are the judge and the jury, the me­dia and the pub­lic opin­ion,” Pope de­scribes this stage of her work in the de­but episode.

A lot of the con­tro­ver­sies sur­round­ing our of­fi­cials would never have gained steam if the govern­ment’s pub­lic re­la­tions peo­ple had done the first two stages prop­erly. The govern­ment can­not af­ford to let of­fi­cials de­cide what to dis­close and how to re­spond. It needs a com­pe­tent cri­sis­man­age­ment pro­fes­sional to iden­tify all weak­nesses be­fore the press do and pre­pare tai­lor-made strate­gies that are is­sue­spe­cific well in ad­vance.

For­get about rules on dec­la­ra­tion of in­ter­ests. For­get about pri­vacy. Our of­fi­cials have to be tough if they want to be the last men, or women, stand­ing in the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment, es­pe­cially af­ter the govern­ment de­scribed pri­vate in­ter­ests in the re­cently re­vised guide­lines as “the fi­nan­cial and other in­ter­ests of the of­fi­cer him­self, his fam­ily and other re­la­tions, his per­sonal friends, the clubs and as­so­ci­a­tions to which he be­longs, any other groups of peo­ple with whom he has per­sonal or so­cial ties, or any per­son to whom he owes a fa­vor or is ob­li­gated in any way.”

While it seems ab­surd to define one’s pri­vate in­ter­ests as the in­ter­ests of one’s per­sonal friends, in­ter­ests of fam­ily mem­bers have been long scru­ti­nized by pub­lic opin­ion. Declar­ing the in­ter­ests of one’s spouse used to be enough, but now the pub­lic is de­mand­ing more. The sen­ti­ment is not en­tirely un­rea­son­able given the Chi­nese so­ci­ety’s con­cep­tion of an ex­tended fam­ily and the wide­spread prac­tice of shar­ing re­sources even with dis­tant rel­a­tives.

Un­der the cir­cum­stances, a rule-based ap­proach, which our of­fi­cials are fa­mil­iar with, will ask “where the new line is”, and hold con­sul­ta­tions and form com­mis­sions to for­mu­late new guide­lines. Peo­ple who fa­vor this ap­proach will find, to their dis­may, that new rules alone will not be able to save them from crit­i­cisms.

The ques­tion that the pub­lic re­la­tions ap­proach will be ask­ing is “what peo­ple feel”. In Paul Chan Mo-po’s case, a PR ex­pert would have in­structed him not to re­spond with: “I have al­ready de­clared all my in­ter­ests ac­cord­ing to rules”. In­stead, if Chan wished to stick to the “fam­ily recre­ation” story, he would have to pro­vide ev­i­dence of the land ac­tu­ally be­ing used for that pur­pose, such as pho­to­graphs of his kids play­ing on the site. Then, of course, he would also have to ex­plain the leases, and why his name ap­pears in them.

Pub­lic re­la­tions are about more than just spin­ning. It is about con­nect­ing with peo­ple and un­der­stand­ing what they think. Like ac­coun­tants and sur­vey­ors, PR prac­ti­tion­ers are also pro­fes­sion­als, and our govern­ment can cer­tainly ben­e­fit from their ad­vice.

Lau Nai-ke­ung

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