Viewpoints: Learning from Leon Lai - the perfect case study of a brilliantly managed PR crisis

Who is the public figure most talked about in Hong Kong these last few weeks? Obviously it’s local pop star Leon Lai. Even though he is not a PR professional (and I bet there was not a PR behind his recent actions), his PR performance when facing a crisis was excellent. It’s the perfect case study for PR professionals to learn from.

1. Take responsibility. I don’t know why CEOs, tycoons or politicians, and the PR teams behind them, find it so hard to take the blame, even when it is crystal clear that they are responsible. Perhaps they are still dreaming they are the “strongman”, a very old school personality type. Leon is the opposite. When he found at that his concert was cancelled a few hours before he was to take to the stage due to fire safety regulation issues, he apologized on his own Facebook page immediately – and sincerely. More than that, he explained the reason for the cancelation in honest detail. We can learn from this. The new generation, in particular, hate public figures who shift responsibility and try to place blame on others. So do not wait for the media to dig out more about your scandal until the point that you can no longer “deny everything”. An old Chinese say goes “Softness overcomes hardness”, the same philosophy should apply here.

2. Respond instantly. In this social media-led era, keeping track of conversations and responding quickly is key to tackling a crisis. Leon did just that. When he saw a comment on social media pointing the finger at the government, Leon responded quickly urged his fans not to place the blame on them. He posted: "It's not the fault of Food and Environmental Hygiene Department. I want to apologize to [all of you] again." In the PR world there are so many meetings, reviews and discussions, and in this case, if Leon hadn’t responded quickly, the conversation could have spiraled out of control and given the public the perception that Leon himself was blaming the government. His early clarification ensured this didn’t happen.

3. Transparency. No one is perfect. Often people over think the situation, trying to create good news to cover the bad news. In fact, the audience just wants to know what is going on. After the cancellation of the first night of the concert, Leon kept updating fans on the situation and what action he was taking, regardless of whether it was good news or bad. In the end, the government approved the concert could go ahead, to the delight of both his fans and the public. He had grabbed the attention and hearts of Hong Kongers because we all could see that he was working so hard to solve the problem. It created a sentimental attachment.

4. Integrated. We all know traditional media decreasing. In Hong Kong alone, more than five key publications have closed down since 2015, and I am quite sure there will be a few more this year. Integrated PR is therefore the trend – with PRs working across traditional media, social media and online media. But which brand are really making this new reality work for them? Leon made it. He shared personal messages on his Facebook page and kept the same tone of voice when talking to the news and entertainment media that had gathered at the site for updates. His message was consistent throughout, always from one person using one voice. Fans and the public were hearing a consistent message across both online and offline sources. Leon had a solid integrated approach.

5. Integrity. In the end, how is it that Leon can do so well out of a crisis? The key reason is he told the public the truth. In years gone by, people consumed news from a limited number of sources. Now, we can’t afford to have a hidden agenda. Coverups get found out quickly with so many people constantly following the story on social media platforms.

After this crisis, Leon became the most popular figure in town. His latest video commercial got over 3 million views on Facebook – that’s almost half of Hong Kong! I’m really happy that someone showed us how important PR skills are in turning a crisis into an opportunity. I’m sad, though, that it wasn’t a PR professional behind such a positive story.

Kevin Lam is associate director at Sinclair Communications and a board member of the Council of Public Relations Firms of Hong Kong.