Analysis: Tajuddin's PR gaffe: Crisis response is reflective of one's true intent

Chatter surrounding Prasarana's former chairman Tajuddin Abdul Rahman somewhat subsided over the weekend, as media outlets and Malaysians shifted focus to the impending total lockdown on 1 June. While the public might have moved on, Tajuddin's PR gaffe still serves as a valuable learning point for leaders and the PR community. 

Statistics from Digimind between 24 to 30 May showed that conversation trends surrounding Tajuddin and Prasarana garnered a total of 71k mentions and a reach of four million netizens. A day after the press conference on 26 May, mentions about Tajuddin peaked at 29k, with news mainly surrounding Tajuddin’s termination as Prasarana’s chairman by the Finance Ministry. The hashtag #LetakJawatanTajuddin (#ResignTajuddin) also went viral on 26 May with at least 7k mentions, which made up about 18% of the mentions generated on the day itself, Digimind said. Most of the chatter came from Kuala Lumpur (35%), Petaling Jaya (19%) and Johor Bahru (8%). Key conversation topics included “epitome of malay”, “Tajuddin Abdul Rahman”, “phoenix”, “china”, and “vaccine”.

Tajuddin, who is also MP of Pasir Salak, officially took on the role at Prasarana on 11 May. According to Bernama previously, he also helmed several positions in UMNO including Pasir Salak UMNO youth chief, UMNO Youth Movement executive committee, and UMNO Pasir Salak division chief. Multiple media reports also said Tajuddin is known for his brash nature and abusive language.

Vijayaratnam Tharumartnam, PROTON's director, group corporate communications, said the latest situation with Tajuddin and Prasarana is a unique one because he was a political appointee. According to Tharumartnam, political appointees, in general, are not held to the standard of accountability of a professional. "Furthermore, his track record is littered with incidences of uncouth behaviour. His demeanour is reflective of Malaysian politics which is almost feudal in nature," he added. That said, the press conference, which Tharumartnam labelled as "farcical", serves as a cautionary tale for all corporations. 

Crisis response is not a set of protocols or actions to be taken. It is reflective of your true intent.

If the idea of accountability is not grounded within the core value system of a company, no amount of media training will save you. He explained that very often, one sees "slick CEOs" who seem to say all the right things and yet they leave one empty. This is where it is crucial for corporate communications to serve as the conscience of the company.

"Go beyond bulletproof holding statements, show responsibility and win trust. Taking ownership is the ultimate solution for a crisis. It may not be easy at first but responsible behaviour will always be remembered," he explained.

Additionally, Tharumartnam also reiterated the four key elements in crisis management: leadership, organisation, verity, and empathy, stating that Tajuddin's PR blunder "failed miserably on all four counts". "He had no grasp of the facts; there was little thought as to what needed to be delivered; it smacked of disingenuity but most obviously, there was zero empathy," he added.

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

This incident also placed Prasarana's PR team in the spotlight, with some industry players previously questioning why the organisation chose to place a non-executive chairman as a spokesperson and if it exhausted all avenues to search for another spokesperson whose personality was a better fit for the incident. 

More often than not, Andy See, managing director of Perspective Strategies said it is convenient to blame PR or communications for the failure, but in reality, the team will never be able to resolve or mitigate these leadership issues. "I can imagine the trauma of the communications team and what it went through during the media conference. I am confident that as professionals, they would have spent hours preparing various factsheets, talking points and a statement for the spokesperson," See explained.

In this instance, he said leadership was clearly missing and it was the decision to place someone who lacked leadership and was incompetent in communication as its main spokesperson during a crisis.

While many see this as a PR issue, See views this as a mismanagement issue.

"This mismanagement is what eventually led to a PR disaster. Importantly, we have to recognise that it is impossible to fix mismanagement issues even with the best PR tools or messaging. Communication just cannot and will not replace leadership," he explained.

Difficult to hide in today's digital landscape

In this digital era, it is tough for individuals to hide, deny or claim that they have been misquoted or misrepresented by the media, especially when there is a video clip on record. Hence, See said spokespeople must be selected carefully and must be able to demonstrate leadership and communicate the appropriate tone of the message being conveyed. This does not only apply to reading the prepared answers but also when answering questions from the floor. 

"In the past, a spokesperson had the chance to get away with such blunders because of the layers of filters news had to go through before being published. Many experienced PR and communications professionals would have helped their CEOs manage such situations at some point in their careers," See explained.

Today, the media filters have been removed and every important media conference is live streamed for the public to see. Hence, there is very little room for spokespeople to make mistakes on live shows. More importantly, leadership must be established and projected right from the beginning, See said, reiterating the qualities of a spokesperson: leadership, empathy, competency, and responsibility. Spokespeople must also be expected to be challenged in difficult scenarios while remaining calm and focused in the face of difficult questions. 

Additionally, this is also a reminder to organisations and boards of companies to never take for granted the importance of PR and communications, See said. Companies must invest in crisis preparedness and part of that preparation must include spokesperson training and crisis simulations. "Perhaps, if boards of companies can see their leadership or spokesperson in action during crisis simulations, they would make better decisions when deciding on whom to entrust the communication responsibility," he said.

Related article:
Malaysia's Finance Ministry fires Tajuddin as Prasarana chairman following PR gaffe