Analysis: Should Prasarana's PR team have blocked Tajuddin from fronting the press conference?

Shortly after being removed from his role, former Prasarana chairman Tajuddin Abdul Rahman has reportedly been detained by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission yesterday for abuse of power. According to multiple media reports including Malay Mail, Tajuddin was detained after arriving at MACC's headquarters to provide a statement but has since been released on oral bail. Quoting its source, Malay Mail said the investigation is related to a raid that took place at Prasarana's office in January. Tajuddin was previously under the spotlight after being accused of interfering with Prasrana's business dealings, Malay Mail added. 

Tajuddin was the talk of the town recently for his rather disastrous press conference a day after the LRT Kelana Jaya collision. He later faced public backlash for describing the train collision as two trains kissing, and was seen laughing during the press conference. He also made what some describe a racist reaction to a reporter from the Chinese news outlet Phoenix TV when she posed him a question. Tajuddin's public lack of empathy during the press conference resulted in widespread condemnation from netizens as well as the president of the Malaysian Public Transport Users Association Ajit Johl and Star Media Group's advisor Wong Chun Wai. Johl labelled his behaviour "rude and disgusting", while Wong wrote in an op-ed in The Star saying that Tajuddin deserved an "F minus" for his behaviour during the press conference. Since the incident, Tajuddin has been removed as Prasarana's chairman. 

Syed Mohamed Idid, PLUS Malaysia's head of strategic stakeholder engagement said how leaders - be it presidents, prime ministers, statesmen or corporate leaders - articulate the brands' vision, and compel stakeholders to have an affinity towards the brand, all stems from the leadership of the heart.

He explained that the "leadership of the heart"  today is very different from that of the old. "The old ways perhaps had more hard authority whereas the leadership of the heart of today is more transparent, thanks to the advent of technology and social media platforms. Leaders not only need to have the ability to have people see them as capable, but also need to display integrity in all that they do and say and have benevolence," said Syed who is also the bureau chairman of the Institute of Public Relations Malaysia council.

It is important for leaders to be sympathetic about situations impacting people. For Tajuddin, Syed said "it was very obvious" that the former chairman did not show empathy nor a genuine understanding of the gravity of what had occurred. "There are two schools of thought. This could be a PR faux pas or lack of leadership from the heart. I feel it's a composite of these two," Syed said.

Is your spokesperson the right person to be facing the crisis?

He explained that any organisation needs to be very clear of its vision and what it wants to be regarded as in the eyes of the public. This needs to be supported by its values which should transcend across all layers in the organisation. This is where the due diligence needs to be paid in selecting leaders. He said:

If this person is going to be forward-facing and representing the brand, they need to personify the vision and the brand values of the entity.

"Did the communications team exhaust their avenues knowing that the spokesperson's persona might not augur well with the current scenario? You know this person might not be that great of a spokesperson and is a reputational risk to the company, but that individual is also of high authority. What mitigation plans or actions do you have?" Syed questioned, adding that the incident goes well beyond just a PR issue. 

In fact, there should be a joint effort between the communications and legal teams to establish the processes and initial statements to be shared.

Syed explained that in such situations, the public simply wants the company to be responsive rather than have all the answers in place. While it might be easy to blame the media thinking they are going for the jugular during times of crisis, Syed explains that media professionals are simply doing their job to disseminate the information to the wider public. However, they also understand that companies usually won't have the entirety of truth during a moment of crisis.

Agreeing with Syed was Mohd Said Bani, MD of BzBee Consult which provides counsel to government agencies including Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur, Royal Malaysia Police, PEMANDU and TERAJU. Said Bani said a spokesperson must be prepared when facing the media following such a tragedy. This includes being properly briefed on the scenario, having a holding statement for certain questions, providing the latest updates and being trained on managing negative and even provocative questions from the media.  He said:

Always listen to the questions, display patience and empathy and never show arrogance, defensiveness or anger.

Calling this incident a "major faux pas" on Prasarana's part and an "unforgettable debacle" of 2021, Said Bani added that this is not only a major embarrassment for Prasarana, but also for the government and the country. 

"It is also telling the standard of political appointees as senior officials in government-owned and related companies. Arrogance, tactless, insensitive, lacking empathy and the required knowledge are only some apt descriptions of a number of these personalities who tend to forget that they have been placed there to serve the public," he added. 

While the spotlight has been on Tajuddin so far, Said Bani said the press conference was also managed badly from the way it was set up to the moderator not being in control. There was an obvious disconnect between the spokesperson and the moderator, he said, given the chairman brushed aside some of the responses when the moderator was attempting to mitigate the bluntness of the questions posed by the media.

"More importantly, why was a non-executive chairman thrust forward as a spokesperson?" he questioned.

Training will only go so far

Without a doubt, this latest PR blunder by Tajuddin certainly highlights the importance of PR training among leaders. However, this incident is not representative of the quality of Malaysian spokespeople or their companies, Felix Heinimann, CEO of Essential Business Malaysia and former CEO of essence BCW, said. While many Malaysia-based companies view crisis training and simulation as important, Heinimann explained that this latest gaffe was caused by "an individual who does not understand how important public speaking in a crisis is" and "does not understand the damage one can create on the value and beliefs of a brand" while communicating during a crisis. 

You can train as much as you want, if the individual is not willing and ready to take on the task then you will have what happened at Prasarana.

Heinimann, however, said the incident should not put bad light upon Prasarana's communications team.

"The mistake was to have such a person as a spokesperson in the first instance. We should not forget that his position was a politically appointed position and is beyond the operational decisions of Prasarana," he said. He added that brands need to have crisis plans in place and execute crisis simulation at least twice a year by involving real-life scenarios such as social media attacks, incoming calls of media inquiries and disruptions through a high amount of velocity created online and on social media.

Meanwhile, echoing Syed's point about benevolence, Heinimann said the spokesperson should show empathy for the injured and traumatised in such a situation. It is also ideal for the spokesperson to have some facts ready about what happened and be able to explain the case within a minute.

First and foremost, however, the spokesperson should re-emphasise that the well being and recovery of the affected one is a priority to Prasarana. "Open a hotline for relatives who have any kind of questions. Ensure that Prasarana will assist all passengers effectively and without any administrative hurdles," he added.

The power of social media

Aside from the backlash, a petition was also created calling for Tajuddin's resignation and criticising him for his “lack of sensitivity and empathy” in managing the victims of the LRT train collision and for his haughty attitude during the press conference. The petition also said Tajuddin is “completely unfit” to be Prasarana’s chairman. The petition has since concluded with 139,726 signatures and was declared a “victory” following Tajuddin's termination from Prasarana.

As with most crisis situations today, the Internet has also played a pivotal role in helping his comments spread like wildfire and creating public pressure for the Ministry of Finance to take action. In this world of social media where everything can come under the scrutiny of netizens, leaders and spokespeople need to be even more careful when representing the brand. 

Heinimann said that in a crisis, social media should be used for short and factual statements and expressing sincere empathy and positive feelings towards the affected ones. It should also be used to show what the company is doing to help victims or the affected environment and used to address in short what exactly happened. 

Then comes the responses of all self-appointed social media editors. "Social media is powerful and dangerous since everyone can jump into the role of an editor. Companies tend to respond to comments during a crisis, especially on comments which are either misleading, incorrect or simply rude," he said.

Heinimann's advice would be to respond only to comments that have factual questions and disseminate statements twice a day or at least once a day to give updates.

It is also very important is to work with a social media monitoring system that is able to predict velocity 48 hours ahead. 

Similarly, BzBee's Said Bani also said companies should avoid using social media as the first or main platform to communicate, especially during a crisis because the platforms are always rife with speculations, inaccuracies, and fake news.

"In fact, social media platforms tend to open doors to unwanted negative comments from netizens," he said. However, he does not deny that social media plays an important role in putting pressure on the relevant spokespeople to take action, especially in Tajuddin's case since he was made to resign.