by Alistair Nicholas
August 20th, 2012

Looking out over the landscape of corporate communications in Asia, an unfortunate pattern has appeared. Perhaps it‘s because Asian economies have grown so quickly that crisis response has so often been poorly managed. Perhaps it’s because organisations simply apply Western practices to Eastern crises, without considering context. Perhaps it’s the opposite — the traditional Asian preference for modesty and silence has led to a crisis strategy of similar tactics.

It seems almost paradoxical, but when we discuss the unique challenges of crisis management in Asia, a major issue is the concept of face. While face can support positive image building, enhancing and protecting your reputation, it can have an equally negative (or worse) effect, reduced to “keeping up appearances” rather than building authentic reputation. That’s why, for example, Western managers working in Asia find themselves having to tread very carefully when it comes to giving subordinates criticism.

Malcolm Gladwell examines this in his book Outliers, where he talks about a Korean airline that had an unusually high number of crashes in the 1980s. What he found was that the co-pilot often didn’t want to challenge the pilot’s decisions because they didn’t want them to lose face, and because of the hierarchical structures of Asian cultures. The results, like many poorly-managed crises, were catastrophic.

A harsh comparison perhaps, but I’ve certainly experienced this in crisis situations and trainings for clients in the region — situations where subordinates know their bosses are making a mistake but remain silent in the name of hierarchy and face. This is a problem for Western companies in the region as much as local companies.

Though crisis management is an issue worldwide, there are differences between best practices in Asia and the West. But these are nuanced and more to do with the tone of communication. For example, it is more important to demonstrate humility and sorrow for something in Asia. When I was involved in crisis management in the West, lawyers would caution us against saying “sorry,” as this could be interpreted as admission of liability. This same approach doesn’t really work here, because it is very important to show humility and sorrow in Asian cultures.

A few years ago I worked with a foreign food manufacturer on a crisis in Asia. A consumer activist group had identified multiple foreign manufacturers for having high GMO trace elements in products imported into China from the US. The foods were acceptable by US and Chinese standards but exceeded EU limits, which has very strict regulations on this. The group accused the companies of having a double standard.

Other companies strongly insisted they had done nothing wrong and were in full compliance with Chinese laws. Our client took a different tack. We humbly apologised for not listening to what consumers wanted and announced that we would be surveying the market and holding discussions with key groups to ensure the company’s products best met Chinese consumer expectations, rather than just fulfilling mandatory regulations. By taking a very Asian approach to the issue, we received positive coverage for that response and eventually moved off the front pages; the client’s competitors, however, stayed in the news with very negative reporting for quite some time.

There is undoubtedly a growing need for crisis preparation among organisations in Asia. The global financial crisis had an impact in the sense that there is now far greater scrutiny of companies. And as Asian companies go global and find they are subject to this increased scrutiny, they are looking for agencies to help with crisis preparedness as well as an advisor in the event of an actual crisis.

Moving forward, organisations must take greater measures to prepare their people for crisis. They should do a risk audit to identify vulnerabilities, and conduct regular desk-top crisis rehearsals and occasional full-scale drills, mobilising all necessary resources. Experienced consultants should be brought in to conduct trainings and give objective feedback and advice. Companies must be prepared for immediate response, fast action and coordinated resources that work simultaneously across languages and time zones.

Top tips for handling a crisis in Asia

• Be humble. Avoid disproportionate shows of force.

• Be quick. Do not let bureaucracy get in the way — keep the crisis response team strategic but small.

• Speak with one voice. Even if multiple people must speak to various stakeholders, messages must be consistent.

• Engage the media, proactively. Give regular updates. Don’t stonewall or avoid the media.

• Engage the public, directly. Use social media. Don’t be afraid of it.

• Monitor social media. Not only is this a smart move for monitoring industry trends and consumer sentiment, it also allows companies to spot and address warning signs of a crisis before it occurs.

• Leverage advocates. Find independent third parties that can serve as “force multipliers” to support your position.

• Build your reputation to protect your reputation. Start doing the right things, especially social responsibility programs that can be stockpiled for use when the time comes.

• Do the crisis preparedness work now. After the crisis happens, it is too late.

Alistair Nicholas is executive vice-president, Asia Pacific, at Weber Shandwick

To receive our updates: