RMIT Vietnam NewsLessons in crisis communications: Q&A with Hoang Tuan Dung

Lessons in crisis communications: Q&A with Hoang Tuan Dung

Monday, February 6, 2017 - 09:30

RMIT Vietnam Senior Educator Hoang Tuan Dung discusses crisis communications in Vietnam and how his students learn from current case studies.

Hoang Tuan Dung, a lecturer in the Crisis Communication course in RMIT Vietnam’s Professional Communication program, says his students learn best when they can relate to current examples.

He shares with us the recent case of Philippine food maker Universal Robina Corp.

Q: What is crisis communication?

Dung: Crisis communication is the practice of protecting and defending a company, individual or brand in the face of an event that could negatively affect its image.

These negative events have two things in common:  the brand/individual/company is being held responsible for an act, and the act is offensive. Most image restoration strategies therefore seek to either reduce responsibility or offensiveness, or both.

When faced with a crisis, the knee-jerk reaction of brands is to protect their reputation, but they often do so in the wrong way. In our Crisis Communication class we analyse these cases and try to learn from them.

Q: Can you give us an example of a recent case study?

Dung: Last year Philippine food maker Universal Robina Corp. (URC) Vietnam was found to have been responsible for manufacturing and selling millions of beverage products with high lead content.

Instead of apologising, when forced to recall millions of tainted bottles, URC Vietnam's response strategy was to minimise the impact of the lead contamination. The company published a local print ad stressing that all products were safe except two tainted and recalled batches.

And while it was unresponsive to criticism over consumer safety, the company was vocal in denying accusations of bribing quality-control officers and local media to turn a blind eye.

More than six months after the forced recall, URC Vietnam has neither apologised nor offered correction or compensation.

Their ‘silence strategy’, hoping to shrug off responsibilities over consumer health impact, is too passive because according to the Institute for Public Relations, “it lets others control the story and suggests the organisation has yet to gain control of the situation”.

Universal Robina Corp. (URC) Vietnam was forced to recall its products because of high lead content. Photo: Tuoi Tre newspaper

Q: How do you use a case study like this in class?

Dung: To begin, I asked my students to resolve and communicate a personal crisis, such as disappointing parents after failing an exam. Intuitively they came up with messages consistent with William Benoit’s Image Restoration strategies, which is the theoretical basis of our study.

For example they said: “I did not fail the exam" (denial), "I failed because the exam was too difficult" (evading responsibility), "I will pay the exam fee with my pocket money" (compensation), "I was wrong. I promise I will work harder to fix it" (correction), "I deeply regret what happened" (mortification).

Which ones are the most effective? When evidence of responsibility is indisputable, students believed the last three strategies work best to appease disappointed parents.

Crisis communication scholars agree. Timothy Coombs found that compensation, correction and mortification, three main components of a smart apology, are most likely to defuse an emotionally charged situation.

We then apply this new knowledge to the real life case study of URC, and analyse what they did or did not do well.

Q: Why is learning about crisis communication important?

Dung: Crises, small and big, are as inevitable as death and taxes. It is not a question of if, but rather when a crisis occurs. The matter is compounded by the Internet and social media, presenting new challenges which require new skills in response. Many organisations have had to learn the hard way because they were simply not prepared to manage these new risks.

Story: Van Doan