On 3 Dec 10, a Citizen Journalist (CJ) posted a story on The Straits Times Online Media Print (STOMP) website alleging an incident of road rage by a local celebrity. Within days the story received over 19,100 page views, garnered 57 comments and was picked-up almost immediately by the mainstream media (MSM).
From a crisis communications perspective, Pierre Png could have handled the incident better. Pierre did well when he sought to regain the information initiative by promptly telling his side of the story. This then enabled STOMP and the MSM to include his side of the story in their reports which then “balanced” the CJ’s claim. A “no comment response” would have implied guilt and would likely have spiraled the incident out of control as rumors would have filled the information vacuum. (See my earlier blog posting where “no comment says more than you think”).
Pierre could however have done better in the following few areas:
a. Choice of “Tone”. Essentially, Pierre chose to come across as a “reasonable man”. While his response sought to make him appear as “mature”, “rational” and “humble”, Pierre’s lack of anger is not congruent with a person who is falsely accused. (See my earlier blog posting on the Brad Lau Saga). Pierre’s side of the story would have greater credibility if he had expressed some anger over being falsely accused.
b. Personal Attack. In his response, Pierre made a personal attack against his accuser by calling his a “coward”. As the aim of a crisis communication strategy in incidents like this is to reduce media interest as quickly as possible, making personal attacks is counter-productive. This is because it is likely to instigate the CJ to seek “revenge” and this will drag the story out. In this instance, Pierre would have done better to keep the attention focused on himself as the “victim” to garner greater support from interested stakeholders.
c. Framing the Crisis. Pierre also failed to frame the crisis to his advantage. In any incident, crisis communicators should seek to elevate the issue at hand to one concerning socially accepted values. In this incident, a good frame would be one of fairness i.e. why pick on me just because I am a celebrity? Elevating the issue to this “level” will then make it harder for the accuser to continue attacking Pierre. This is because continuing an attack would likely turn stakeholder support against the CJ. Additionally, an issue of “fairness” will also allow Pierre to enlist other celebrities to his cause.
d. Clear Outcomes. Pierre’s fourth and, in my opinion, biggest mistake is his failure to develop and pursue a clear outcome from this crisis. In show business, they say “all publicity is good publicity”, hence having a clear outcome will enable him to respond holistically to turn this to his advantage. In my assessment, having a clear outcome would have shaped Pierre initial statement to elevate the issue, would have prevented Pierre from making a personal attack against the accuser thereby prolonging the incident, and would likely have enabled him to “gain” from this incident.
In summary, the key lessons learnt for PR Professionals are these: (a) never use “no comment” as it implies guilt; and (b) develop clear outcomes at the onset of any crisis.