How to survive (and thrive) in the field of crisis communications

In 2003, Singapore was hit with panic because of an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). It happened after a young woman returned to Singapore infected following a holiday abroad. Within days, through close contact, the virus spread like wildfire. Schools were shut and the virus touched more than 238 people and claimed 33 lives.

The nation was in a gloomy lockdown.

During those harrowing days, recalls Karen Tan, now senior director/public communications division in the Ministry of Communications and Information, she and her team spent an intense three months organising press conferences, answering media questions and essentially living in a crisis.

Tan was at that point working with the Ministry of Health (MOH) in Singapore – an organisation she would stay with for about 10 years.

“Amid all the press conferences and calls, I had to go down to SPH to proofread and clear ad copies. Back then, we didn’t have PR agencies for all that. It was just my comms team and I,” she recalls.

But amid the frenzy, what remained clear to Tan was the need for transparency.

“Honesty is the best policy in a crisis. Being clear and open about what you know and what you don’t know can go a long way in building trust with the media and the public. If I could not provide all the information, I shared with journalists the problems, and what I could tell them at the moment. This going beyond mere honesty to transparency is what I think contributed to good media relations during a crisis, like SARS,” she said.

In a crisis, she adds, transparency is paramount and building a network of trust is vital. Speed and clarity are also essential during such situations because of the increased tempo.

During a crisis, the whole approval process is shortened. You want to be clear and give the first alert so people don’t resort to rumours and hearsay.

"During those days, the calls came in practically 24/7 not just with local, but also global media. We lived by the phone then,” she said.

SARS was not the only crisis Tan had to deal with during her time with MOH where she served concurrently as the director of corporate communications and press secretary to the Minister of Health.

In those years, she dealt with the influenza A (H1N1) pandemic in 2009, several dengue outbreak cases leading to bed crunch situation in public hospitals, the NKF saga in 2005 and Renci financial scandal in 2008, which were connected with the misuse of donated funds to charity organisations.

Ultimately, what she took away from those years of battling crises was a rule book on the principles of communication.

All these badges of honour earned Tan a seat as a communications advisor to the World Health Organisation’s International Health Regulations Emergency Committee on disease outbreaks. She also serves as an informal communicators advisor to the director-general of WHO in the communications advisory group, and provides guidance on messaging and risk communications.

Fast forward 14 years after the days of SARS, Tan says the principles of communications remain the same despite the advent of social media.

“Be transparent, be first to give the alert in a crisis and have a structure to respond very rapidly to questions,” she says.

At least one of the things I didn’t have to handle back then was social media.

A facelift for government comms

Today, Tan looks over all of the government’s public communication initiatives. In her capacity, she has also been actively involved in the transformation efforts of government communications to make information and policies more digestible for the general public.

In her own words, she describes the MCI to be “levelling up communications capabilities across whole of government and pushing government comms to a higher level for greater effectiveness.”

When asked how government communications have changed in her eyes, she says there is now a daringness to try new ideas and innovate along the way. There is also a lot more of a listening mechanism and targeted messaging.

Tan strongly believes for communication to be effective, the message crafted must have resonance, relevance and credibility.

“There needs to be a chorus of voices. We need ideas from all our partners and also from the general public. Over the past few years, we have seen the government taking on a citizen-centric and data-driven approach to communications,” she says.

A strong believer in data, she says all communication today needs to be anchored in data. It is no longer a one-size-fits-all, but rather targeted and deliberate messaging, and sustaining that message throughout the years.

Tan is now also part of a national marketing office set under MCI to establish certain frameworks and structures, and have a common set of KPIs with other ministerial bodies. The new marketing office was formalised in January this year, following structural changes undergone by MCI late last year.

Being clear and open about what you know and what you don’t know can go a long way in building trust with the media and the public.

The unit will be co-ordinating various government campaign efforts to ensure the public isn’t inundated with government messaging. The office will be looking at the overall branding of Singapore. “The office will look to level up government communication approaches and amplify our messaging to better inform, engage and influence members of the public,” Tan says.

A higher calling

“Our job becomes to understand how to make government information reach out to the people in a more arresting manner,” she says.

But a problem unique to government comms is that ultimately it is not about logging impressions or getting clicks. It is about changing attitudes and behaviours. And behaviour changes take time. She adds that a campaign can be broken down into three stages in government comms – how to better inform; how to better engage; and how to better influence.

“For those of us in government communications, it is not like fast moving consumer goods where the next day you know with the volume of sales. For us, the challenge lies in pinpointing which point of the campaign is causing a change in behaviours and attitudes,” she said.

But creating mediocre sanitised ads is not an option for Tan and her team. “What I have learnt about social media is that you can’t please everybody. Don’t bash your head over it, but be careful of what you say and how it could be interpreted,” she says.

A setback has never, she adds, stopped her from daring to try.

“I tell my team never to be bland. A setback doesn’t stop us from trying. We take it in our stride and learn from it,” she says.

When asked if she would ever return to the private sector, she says she has always found working in government agencies meaningful as it goes beyond profit margins because it is ultimately about the people.

I think for people who work in the government sector it is about a larger mission. But I learnt a lot from working in the private sector too when I was with Shell. I learnt to chill out a bit.