Dealing with online haters: How MCI’s Karen Tan deals with a crisis

Karen Tan is the senior director with the public communications division at the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI).

Often, she faces the misconception that in her role, she has to keep the pristine image of our tiny red dot, well, pristine. Setting the record straight at the recent PR Asia conference, Tan said: “While I certainly like the government image to be pristine and clean, as it is very welcoming for tourists, but in terms of what I do in the government is to enhance the communication to the public in a sincere and transparent manner.”

She explains that her role is to create messages that resonate with members of the public so they are able to understand the various public policies and how they can benefit from the policies. She also looks to elevate the level of communication and this goes far beyond just simplifying policies for everyday citizens. It is about changing perception and behaviour, she explains.

“There is general sense that we have to evolve our communications, it is not something static. Sometimes we may score some wins and sometimes we may fail, but there is now a spirit of trying and innovating,” she explains.

Marketing: There are a lot of naysayers and keyboard warriors online these days who criticise the government, how do you decide when to step in to stop the negativity?

Internally, we have been grappling with this issue for a long time. I’m so happy that when I was handling the SARS crisis back in 2003, I didn’t have to tackle social media! But social media is something you cannot wish away. Sometimes, you almost think,  ‘Let people talk, and over a few days, it’ll fade away’. But if you throw mud on a wall enough times, it will stick.

So internally, we have coined something called DRUMS: Distortion, rumour, untruth, misinformation, smears. And how do you fight drums? You have to beat your drum louder. We also run a government website which is called factually where we will fight these “drums” on our own platform.

But we cannot be fighting everything that is out there. But you need good listening mechanisms, not just from social media, but from roadshows or outreach and door-to-door knocking. You collate all that information and if it is serious enough and damages the reputation, you have to look into it – even though it is just one website. We have to be fast, nimble and flexible in all channels.

Marketing: Is the time to reaction a KPI for you? What are your KPIs?

My bosses always tell me: “You can be faster.” We wish to be faster, but sometimes when you get to know of certain things, they have already happened. So one of the mechanisms to dealing with this is, you can anticipate things and even before something becomes a fire, you’re able to catch it. I think this is something we are still grappling with just like many other organisations.

Marketing: Back in 2003 during the SARS period, how did you deal with the crisis? Did you work with any agencies?

My team and I were pretty handicapped when the crisis hit and we did not have a PR agency to help us, and because it happened so quickly! As we did not have a PR agency, I had to write copies for SPH and also since we knew our message rather well. We even had to come up with a TVC on our own in the form of a Phua Chu Kang rap.

We had to handle all the calls that kept coming in and we didn’t have a call centre at the beginning, so everything was starting from scratch. Our website also crashed due to the amount of traffic.

I think one of the lessons learnt from SARS was, the communications team isn’t the only one doing everything in a crisis, it should be the whole organisation getting on board. While risk communication is part and parcel of strategic communication, it’s not just a communication function, it is also a role for the leadership. Any crisis is a leadership role.

Marketing: What advice do you have for PR professionals who face tension with the legal team when a crisis happens?

I think it is about how much you say and how much of that is accurate. But in a crisis situation, there is always an element of uncertainty. So in terms of communications, it is about how you acknowledge uncertainty, and you cannot be fabricating untruths.

Tell people clearly what you know, what you don’t know, what cannot be told at the moment and what you’re going to find out for the public.

I think we are among the few countries that have developed a system and has a standard operating principle on risk communications, along with a structure. After the SARS outbreak, we also spent a lot of time training the communications team and policy folks. We spent the time training people and developing the capability. That is how the transformation of government communications has since proceeded, and we always include the risk communication/management component to it as well.

Marketing: I know transparency has always been an important factor for you. How do you deal with a journalist that might have dug up more than he/she should have during a crisis?

I think it is really the job of a journalist to dig up as much information as possible. If they dig the right way, that is OK, but if they dig the wrong way that starts rumours, then I think it is necessary to correct misinformation. On occasions where we may not be able to share as much due to evolving crisis, I think it is good to sit with them and say the government doesn’t have the information to share, but we are trying to get the information.

During the SARS period, my team and I developed a really good relationship with the various media outlets and there was a time when WHO wanted to declare Singapore SARS-free. Internally we felt that we aren’t ready as there were still a few cases awaiting results, and we have to get the cooperation of media to await the confirmation before reporting on WHO’s intention to declare Singapore SARS free.

So I think that sometimes the sharing of this dilemma with the journalist will help as well.

Marketing: Are there times you feel there is more propaganda than PR in your role? Where do you draw the line?

In all organisations, you have to be in tune with the mission statement. The mission for government communications is to let people know what are the policies and to clearly explain the intent behind policies so that people can better understand  the policies. Some may call it propaganda but it is your terminology. But for us, in the public sector, we we regard it our duty to explain policies, and I think it is very much in line with defending government policy.

I am not ashamed of defending the government’s policies. I think the public has the right to know what is the rationale and a lot of times it is not just explaining the “what and the how” but it is also the “why” of it. Even for private organisations, you have a way of saying it and we have a “why” of saying it.

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