4 Crisis PR Lessons from COVID-19 Singapore

For me, coming home to Singapore has felt a little less like a warm embrace, and a little more like a hot furnace. Both literally and figuratively, the heat was on as I jumped right back into my day job in the midst of a pandemic-driven economic and social crisis.

In the last healthcare crisis, I was a clueless student. During the 2009 Financial Meltdown, I was a young job seeker. COVID-19 is the first crisis that I have to face as a working adult, and as someone leading communications. I’ve had small runs of bad news and negative sentiment before, and I always found a way to counter it. COVID-19, however, is different for those in the commercial property sector. After 60 days of complete immersion in this situation, I think there are lessons we can learn as PR, Brand and Marketing people.

1) Don’t ever let a narrative run.

Commercial Property owners in Singapore took a beating. It started with complaints from tenants, which turned into months of rental waivers.

Then, a sustained and coordinated PR assault by the admittedly opportunistic Singapore Retailers Association turned things ugly. The government will debate (and pass) a mandatory law to compel commercial landlords into matching rental rebates that the government has given out. This comes up to approximately 2 additional months of rental waivers, for a total of 4 months of rent subsidies.

For Singaporeans, this comes as no surprise. After all, the combined reputation of commercial landlords have taken a 20 year beating. Every time a major retailer closes for good, you’ll read that “high rentals contributed” to the closure or that restaurants are simply “working for the landlord”.

I don’t blame the general public for this, because I honestly think that Big property in Singapore let the “Evil Landlord” narrative run without ever highlighting all the good they did for their tenants. The millions they invested in marketing, the millions more they invested in maintaining the behemoth structures within which tenants made money hand over fist. Not to mention the millions more in enhancing building architecture, or events meant to draw traffic.

You also never read about how flawed business models led to unsustainable growths and eventual closures. In all the closure stories, you almost never see a reply or comment by any landlord. There was no counterargument in even the most defensible of cases.

And now, landlords are collectively paying for the negative narrative that Big Property in Singapore never bothered to counter.

2) Dispel untruths with a light, personal touch.

I had an encounter with someone who went to the press with blatant untruths. Without getting into specifics, the allegation to the press was that we were trying to raise rentals during this crisis, which played into the “Evil Landlord” narrative perfectly. This was untrue.

While I was initially angry with the allegation, I took heart that the journalist from The New Paper working on the story had decided to fact check (yay!) the statements with me. Most people know TNP as sort of a tabloid-y paper, and the recent Wanbao furore made me hyper-cautious.

However, I decided that I would take the opportunity to practice what PR expert, and my professor at Boston University, taught me: Approach everything honestly, and transparently. Dispel the untruth, and be sincere when presenting your nuanced side of the story.

I sent an email, but I also called the journalist over the phone to make sure I could answer any additional queries she might have. In both my interactions, I made it a point to say this:

“Thanks for listening to our side of the story. My only request is that we are represented with the nuance and clarity that we have explained this situation with.”

With that line, we dodged the bullet that was clearly headed for us, and ended up blunting an attack that would have hurt us.

3) Lobbying is about timing in Singapore

Politics is about people, not about policy. In a year of impending elections and COVID-19, it has become immeasurably clear that lobbying by Special Interest Groups are important, even in Singapore’s supposedly impartial system.

This is not an indictment against the government of the day, but a clear indication of the direction that our public communications is shifting towards. The Singapore Retailers Association knew exactly what it was doing when it released that open letter to both the public and the landlords it was speaking to. They knew that all they needed to do was to sufficiently shift sentiment against landlords, then let the public do the rest.

Of course, lobbying during an election year for anything is smart, but to do it this publicly with this level of timing is shrewd. When counting votes, SMEs outweigh almost every other interest group, and SMEs are overwhelmingly Singaporean-led.

The outcome, as we say, is history.

4) Look forward and find light

While it does seem like gloom and doom, there are bright spots. Gradual lifting of restrictions is here, and other countries have proven that this virus is manageable.

Now is the time to start building a new communications plan with COVID-19 in mind. This means accounting for a longer/shorter Phase 1 and 2, and working under constantly changing restrictions and rules.

For Communication Leads in a B2C environment, consider looking into how you can ramp up brand activity into the next year, which will allow you to get a head start when talking to vendors, senior management and influencers. Talking to people, after all, is how you’ll open new opportunities.

I’ve already embarked on planning for multiple digital and physical initiatives that I hope will come online in the coming months, and I’m excited to embark on this new journey. I hope all of you keep going, and find your light at the end of this very long tunnel!

One comment

  1. Irene Lee says:

    Great reflection as a professional PR person. Learning is constant and to make the step learning curve during this pandemic is commendable. Keep this awesome attitude going.

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