If, like many people and Unspun, you find yourself transfixed by the unfolding drama of the search for MH 370, you are likely to see several threads of opinion surface regarding the performance of the Malaysian Government, helmed by Defence Minister and Acting Transport Minister Hishamuddin Hussein.
On one end of the spectrum is the view that the Government is not only doing a terrible job but that they are engaged in some conspiracy to delude and misinform the families of those aboard MH 737 and the public.
On the other end, usually adorned by nationalistic sentiments and righteous indignation, is the view that the Malaysian Government did its best, and its best was good enough and all criticism was unfair.
This view was recently voiced by Matthias Chang, an advisor to former Prime Minister Mohamad Mahathir. In typical Mahathir-esque polemic he not only said that posterity will testify on the side of the Malaysian Government,but that they would have been able to do much more, if not for the White Man and his tricks:
Let me state from the outset that I totally agree with the press statements by Malaysia’s Defence Minister and Acting Transport Minister, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein that “we have conducted ourselves fairly, responsibly and history will judge us for that.”
And to a mischievous and presumptuous question from a correspondent of the Financial Times, Datuk Seri with confidence and integrity rightly said without any fear of contradiction that, “I don’t think we could have done anything different from what we have already done.” Well done!
Where does the truth lie? Unspun, who’s had some experience with helping people and companies cope with crisis-like situations, thinks it is somewhere in between: That the Malaysian government did try its best and was not not trying to delude anyone. But its best was simply not good enough by a very long shot and its natural instincts to be the Keepers of the Temple Secret scuttled whatever good it did.
Unspun also feels that while there may be somewhat of an argument that countries involved in the search, in which the US is singled out by the likes of Matthias (and why not — the US is such a convenient whipping boy), may have been territorial with their secrets and advanced technologies, nobody was really that callous and hard-hearted to deny the families the obligation that countries have to try to ease their uncertainty and pain. Maybe Unspun is naive and too trusting, but the selfishness of others is a logical decoy – it has very little to do with how the Malaysian Government and Hismanuddin handled the crisis-like situation in the aftermath of MH 370’s disappearance.
One fact of crisis-like situations is that the publicity it generates shows everything up in stark contrast. Things are either black or white, you are either a good guy or a bad guy. You are either handling it well or you’re incompetent. Public scrutiny does not appreciate grey areas. And public scrutiny in a crisis-like situation is a fact of life. So blaming the Western media for their reporting is like a stage actor berating the audience for booing what they perceive to be a bad performance.
As such, competent crisis managers train themselves to adopt what some experts call the Dual Track Approach, where you synchronise both the operational responses and communications responses. The key word is “synchronise” because if you do too much and say too little you arouse suspicion and if you say too much while doing too little you invite skepticism; and if you are totally unsynchronised, there will be hell to pay.
When Unspun was cutting his teeth on crisis management practices his trainer used to drum two principles into him. One was that “facts are the only currency in a crisis”. The other was that “No response plan survives its first contact with a crisis” – so the only defence you have is the quality of information you have and the robustness of your decision making process. Both, as you can see, are interrelated.
The Malaysian Government under Hishamuddin’s watch failed to observe both these principles and synchronise their operational and communications responses.
They failed to, operationally, marshall and filter the information to separate facts from rumours, hearsay and plain wrong data. Being in a crisis-like situation is like being in a battlefield, enveloped by the fog of war. It is confusing, it is chaotic, information of all types of quality comes flying at you in all directions. The first task of crisis manager is to find the facts.
How does one do this in the midst of all that confusion? By calmly weighing each piece of information, sending out scouts or teams to follow up leads. And once you have these facts, what do you do? Before you act, you verify them. You double and triple check to make sure that they are actually facts and not some piece of misinformation. What comes into play then is the robustness of your decision-making process, which depends on the caliber of people you have, whether they have an open-minded mindset and how they perform under pressure.
It is then, and only then, that you are ready to act, which involves making a decision on your operational response, while at the same time deciding on what to say, how to say it as your communications response.
If Hishamuddin had adhered to these principles he would have avoided at least the two incidents that have now become emblematic of the incompetence of the Government. Firstly, DCA chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman’s equating the looks of footballer Mario Balotelli to the two Iranians who had travelled on fake passports. How can anyone say that two olive-skinned, Middle Eastern-looking men could look like a black Ghanian footballer?
And then there is the transcript. The Malaysian Government first said that the last words from MH 370 was “All right. Goodnight”. Now that that it is forced to released the transcripts it now says that the actual words were “Goodnight. Malaysian 370.” The two sentences do not even sound alike and one has double the syllables of the other. How can anyone trust them if they can’t get such starkly contrasted information right?
To be fair, it is never easy for crisis managers to marshall the facts but anyone trained to do so would have had followed the procedures of holding, core and update statements to help them do so.
In crisis management practice, holding statements are made shortly after an incident when you have some of the basic information. It may be a mere confirmation that something has happened, the number of passengers involved, where they are from, the number of the crew, as well as expressions of empathy and a commitment to be open and to share information as they come in. It is OK to say that there are things you don’t yet know at this stage. A holding statement is designed to demonstrate that you care, are human, that you are open and are in control as you know what to do next. It buys you time, feeds The Beast which is the appetite for infant news by the mss media and buys you time to plan for a more considered response in the form of a core statement.
The Core Statement is a crucial piece of document as it serves as the foundation for all you future updates. Get it right and you have a firm foundation to build on, get it wrong and you get what the Malaysian Government is getting – inconsistent facts that call your credibility and competence into question.
How you put together a core statement is to find and verify – and then double check that they are correct – the facts, before putting them down in the core statement. Information such as the turn back and the last message from MH370 don’t get put into the core statement and communicated to anyone unless and until they have been verified. That way you don’t run into confusion later. It may take you time and reap some criticism but tardiness is a lighter cross to bear than incompetence.
Failing to observe these basic principles alone is enough to damn the Malaysian Government and Hishamuddin in history as a bunch of incompetents. This is not to take into account the other mistakes they have made that have more to do with how they delivered their messages rather that what they delivered.
Having said all this, Unspun believes that Hishamuddin and the Government has been sincere in trying to manage this situation to the best of their ability. The problem is that their best is just not good enough. It is fine for us to extend concessions to ordinary people for their foibles in difficult situations, but political leaders who seek high office and high-ranking officials who have no qualms accepting the silver of taxpayers have a higher onus of responsibility that the Ordinary Joe in the street.
A lot depends on them and they are expected to rise to the occasion when it is demanded. This is a responsibility that they must shoulder. So let’s please do away with the righteous indignation, the jingoism, the defensiveness and the conspiracy theories and call the situation for what it is.