Recent high-profile incidents involving Lancôme, Leon Lai, City University and even the Ngau Tau Kok fire show what approaches work and don’t

While the adage may be that there is no such thing as bad publicity, recent events in Hong Kong have shown that the way companies, institutions and individuals respond to public relations crises can lead to very different results.

Whilst some have adopted a proactive approach to potentially brand-damaging events by keeping their audience informed with timely updates on social media, others have sought to contain an embarrassing blunder by making limited comment.

City University found itself in the centre of a storm in May when the roof of its Tai Ho Multi-Purpose Hall collapsed. The incident proved a major test for Joseph Kun Ching-chung, the university’s associate director of communications and public relations.

As soon as Kun heard about the collapse, he spoke with the university’s senior management who agreed that a press conference should be held within a few hours to head off speculation and rumours.

“If you don’t give [the public] accurate information, the media may interpret things by themselves,” he said. “So I think timing was very important for us at that time.”

Kun said facilitating requests from authorities and media and having open communication were paramount to those who were inspecting the site.

“The first few hours were the most important [after the roof collapse],” he recalled. “We had to protect our brand and our image. We had to maintain trust.”

He recognised that online outlets – highly influential in the digital age, especially in social media – should be allowed into press conferences. They should also be provided print information to cut down on misunderstandings.

City University’s handling of the roof collapse incident was well-received, preventing a freak occurrence from becoming a major public relations disaster.

Canto-pop singer Leon Lai Ming similarly demonstrated how a strong PR strategy could help salvage one’s image following an unexpected event. The 49-year-old singer was forced to call off his concert at Central Harbourfront in April over a fire safety issue just two hours before it was meant to start.

His fans were distraught and frustrated, but they appeared to respond well to his multiple apologies on social media.

His first video apology went viral, with fans praising him for his sincerity. One fan even wrote on Facebook: “Mr Lai is more transparent, responsible and efficient than the SAR government! [He] has successfully resolved a potential public relations disaster! Amazing.”

Sara Jones, a PR and communications specialist based in London, said a timely response could contain a potentially disastrous situation, even if it did not always entirely solve it.

She advised clients to keep others regularly informed about how they were working to resolve an issue.

“Keeping people up to date with developments and telling them what you’re doing to improve things is crucial and that’s where Leon Lai did so well,” she said.

“Social media brings an added layer of difficulty to handling a crisis because information travels so far and so quickly,” she added. “But it can also help because those at the centre of the crisis can communicate with their audience really quickly and directly.”

However, social media can also intensify negative publicity, as seen during the recent Ngau Tau Kok fire. In that tragedy, Fire Services Department director David Lai Man-hin received a critical rather than sympathetic response from netizens over his leadership when he broke down at a press conference at the height of the crisis.

Separately, French cosmetics company Lancôme faced a backlash from Hongkongers over its decision to cancel a concert it had planned to host with Canto-pop singer Denise Ho Wan-sze.

The public perception was that the gig was cancelled due to Ho’s political affiliations with the Occupy movement, sparking protests in Hong Kong.

Lancôme declined to comment further on the fiasco when approached by the Post. A spokeswoman said its earlier statements posted on Facebook still applied: the company had stated the event had been cancelled due to “possible safety reasons”, adding it was “deeply sorry for the disappointment”.

An earlier statement read: “Denise Ho is not a spokesperson of Lancôme. We are sorry for the confusion caused.”

Jones said Lancôme’s approach was “not to engage with the story”, which, in this instance, seemed to have backfired to a certain degree.

By Harminder Singh
Rachel Blundy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 July, 2016, 1:47pm
UPDATED : Friday, 15 July, 2016, 9:28pm

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