Posted: December 8, 2011
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Article SummaryThe flooding that began in northern Thailand in late July 2011 has been Thailand’s worst flood in at least five decades. This column assesses the Thai government’s crisis communication at the height of the flood, especially its tendency to over-reassure. The column puts this performance into context by reviewing other examples of Thai over-reassurance from our files, and speculates on whether and why over-reassuring the public during emergencies might be more characteristic of Thai crisis communication than of crisis communication in other countries. A final section addresses how the Thai government (or any government or company) might begin to dig itself out from such a history – that is, what to do when your audience has learned to expect dishonest over-reassurance from you.

Over-Reassuring Thai Crisis Communication about the Great Flood:
When “Restoring Trust” Is
Too Much to Expect

This column got its start as a November 4 comment sent to this website’s Guestbook by Pudcharee Tunyabut, a marketing communication professional based in Bangkok. As floodwaters were rising in much of the city, including her own home, Pudcharee wrote:

I would love to get your insight on what is a monumental crisis communication failure by the government and authorities. If you look at the crisis timeline you can see just about every crisis communication faux pas ever identified….

What has annoyed most people is the conflicting information and non-disclosure, particularly regarding certain risks (such as electrocution). Whilst a few escaped snakes and crocodiles may have caused headlines (outrage), more pressing risks like disease, electrocution, etc. go completely unmentioned. [Note from Jody and Peter: After Pudcharee sent us this email, disease and electrocution risk eventually received more attention from officials and the media.]

People just do not know what to do for the best. [With] no simple instructions and so much inaccuracy and conflict between agencies and politicians, it is simply a matter of looking out of the window and seeing for yourself. Looking at Katrina, I see that from a risk comm perspective some of the criticisms voiced there (poor pre-crisis planning; poor coordination of resources; poor collaboration between agencies; failure to provide honest, candid, open and accountable communication) are relevant here.

Most of all, lack of leadership seems to be a massive problem. There is no Giuliani figure here; no Winston Churchill; no courage, conviction, optimism. If this flood had occurred in Singapore, I feel sure a quite different response would have been prepared and executed.

Do you have any thoughts on how a government should communicate in this situation and how they might go about restoring trust (if they can)?

Apart from the specific crisis communication challenges of this massive Thai flood, Pudcharee’s comment raised two broader issues that captured our attention:

  • Whether there’s something unique about Thai government and culture (compared not just to Singapore but to other countries around the world) that makes it less likely to be candid about imminent emergencies.
  • What a government can do when it’s in as big a credibility hole as the Thai government is in (other than stop digging!) – what can be done when “restoring trust” is at best a long-term dream.

We can only speculate about the first of these two issues. We will do that, briefly, after we document the Thai tradition of over-reassurance in emergencies that first caught our attention nearly a decade ago. Most of this column is a litany of pre-flood and flood examples of Thai over-reassurance.

As for the second issue, at the end of the column we will outline a proposed path back toward credibility – not that the Thai government has given any indication of wanting to start down such a path.

Thai Crisis Communication:
Some Really Low Points

Back in May 2009, when Thai public health officials were covering up the first dozen or so cases of swine flu in Thailand, a Thai influenza expert, Tawee Chotpitayasunondh, expressed his exasperation with the cover-up. A Bangkok Post article paraphrased Dr. Tawee as saying that “Thailand will have flu as surely as Bangkok will have floods.”

Since 2003, we have documented numerous Thai examples of stunningly bad crisis communication. The Thai government routinely fails to warn about stressful and dangerous situations; it routinely downplays how serious such situations are or might get; it routinely over-reassures about its ability to prevent or manage the emerging crisis. Its contempt for the public’s ability to cope with alarming realities has been consistent.

Most of our best “bad examples” of crisis over-reassurance have come from Thailand. Here, in chronological order, are a few culled from our files.

2003: Terrorism

When Hambali, leader of the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiah (JI), was captured in August 2003, JI was believed to be planning an attack on an upcoming APEC meeting in Bangkok. Thailand’s Prime Minister at the time, Thaksin Shinawatra, dismissed the risk on the grounds that the group had been eradicated in Thailand. Australia’s The Age reported:

Thailand’s Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said Hambali’s entire network in Thailand had been wiped out with his capture and the earlier arrests of three of his associates. Mr Thaksin said during his weekly radio address to the nation, that the trail to Hambali was exposed by an “irregular money transaction” noticed by investigators.

This “resulted in the arrest of the first case, the second, the third, and now we have got the fourth man, Mr Hambali, who is regarded as the last one in our land.”

We saw Thaksin’s statement as a sign of his “fear of fear” – fear of his citizens’ concern, anxiety, fear, or perhaps even terror about terrorism. But we didn’t think his attempt to (over)reassure his people would work; we imagined them reacting this way:

One can picture a Thai citizen reasoning as follows: “Well, either the Prime Minister believes the war against terrorism has just been won, in which case he won’t be doing much to look for additional terrorists; or he does not believe this but wants me to think he does, in which case I obviously cannot trust him.” Even if we allow for the possible existence of Thai citizens so credulous they take the Prime Minister at his word, this just sets them up to feel shocked and betrayed when terrorism next appears in Thailand.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, attending meetings in Australia at the time Hambali was captured, had a very different message for Australians, who were still in a state of high anxiety (and misery) following the 2002 Bali bombings that were masterminded by Hambali. Armitage warned Australians to brace themselves, not to breathe a sigh of relief:

“They’re going to try to come after you, whether we capture Hambali or not,” he [Armitage] said. “They have dedicated themselves to this because Australia is a free, open and democratic society and is a threat to everything they are standing for.”

Needless to say, Islamist terrorism wasn’t over in Thailand. The insurgency escalated again in early 2004, leading Thaksin to assume wide-ranging emergency powers. By 2006 the Thai army was granted its own emergency powers, and in September 2006 a military junta ousted Thaksin from power.

2003: SARS

After the SARS epidemic had ended in June 2003, lab workers in several Asian countries developed SARS as a result of lab accidents. Understandably, SARS anxiety resurfaced in Asia.

Prime Minister Thaksin told his people – categorically – that there was no need to worry:

Thailand was even safe from SARS in its previous spread in the region earlier this year, as we cooperated closely with the World Health Organization and strictly followed WHO’s suggestions on SARS prevention. We’ve gained experiences from that. So, don’t be worried, we’ll [be] safe from SARS again, given the government’s awareness and preparations for the possible recurrence of the deadly flu.

2003–2004: Bird flu

In November 2003, Thailand started reporting the deaths of thousands of chickens, in both small holdings and large commercial poultry factories. Officials said the chickens were dying of “fowl cholera.” Over the next two months, South Korea, Vietnam, and Japan confirmed their own poultry outbreaks – not fowl cholera, but the first poultry outbreaks of H5N1 bird flu since Hong Kong in 1997.

Rumors spread that Thailand’s “fowl cholera” was actually bird flu too. Several countries – including Japan, Thailand’s largest poultry customer – banned importation of Thai poultry. The European Union didn’t ban Thai poultry, but in mid-January 2004 it sent EU food safety commissioner David Byrne to check out the situation. Thai officials were apparently very persuasive, and Byrne reported back to the EU: “There absolutely is no evidence of the existence of bird flu in Thailand.”

Having won over Byrne, the Thai government next tried to convince its own public that bird flu was not rampant in Thailand.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra invited foreign reporters to join his cabinet for a chicken lunch yesterday as he tried to soothe public fears after an outbreak of poultry cholera.

“Come and join us. Are you scared?” Thaksin called out as the cabinet sat down in the dining room of Government House to a lunch of Hainanese chicken rice, roast chicken and spicy chicken soup as well as raw salmon and octopus.

“It’s the best chicken in the world, Thai chicken,” he said. “This is exactly what we export to Japan. It’s very good. It’s safe.”

Thailand insists it is free of the bird flu which has jumped to humans in Vietnam and killed at least five people there, but the cholera outbreak has dented confidence in a major export industry that raises one billion chickens each year.

Many Thais are shunning chicken, hence the cameras watching the cabinet eat a range of poultry dishes, even though experts say poultry cholera cannot skip to humans, unlike bird flu.

Finally, on January 23, a few days after reassuring the EU food safety commissioner and putting on the poultry-eating media event, the Prime Minister admitted that bird flu was ravaging poultry flocks in Thailand’s enormous commercial poultry industry, and that two people had caught the highly fatal disease. He more or less admitted the cover-up – and more or less defended it:

  • From UPI: “It’s not a big deal. If it’s bird flu, it’s bird flu. We can handle it.”
  • From the BBC: “‘There has been a lot of talk that the government has been trying to cover this up,’ Mr Thaksin said in a weekly radio address on Saturday. ‘That we didn’t say anything doesn’t mean we weren’t working. We’ve been working very hard.’”
  • From the Sydney Morning Herald: “Please trust the government. It did not make an announcement in the very beginning because it did not want the public to panic.”

On the day Thailand admitted its ongoing bird flu outbreaks, one of us (Jody) told Food Production Daily: “In my field, risk communication, we teach officials and experts to help the public tolerate uncertainty, to help the public bear anxiety when anxiety is appropriate, and to level with the public at all times.… Thailand’s leaders characteristically express over-confidence and premature over-reassurance in the face of the unknown and unproven. They have done the same thing regarding SARS preparation and regarding terrorism.”

The Bangkok Post editorialized: “The government’s effort to sweep the problem under the carpet has exploded in its face.…”

The January 15 headline in Thailand’s The Nation newspaper was “Thailand declared free of bird flu.” The January 16 headline was “Bird flu fears: ‘Govt is lying about crisis.’”

[From The Nation, Thailand, January 16, 2004]

Like the Bangkok Post editorial, these two headlines a day apart suggest to us that neither the Thai public nor the Thai media found Thaksin’s over-reassurances acceptable – far less persuasive or desirable.

Still, a week later the Prime Minister was busy eating chicken, not crow:

We can’t resist adding a brief history of Thaksin’s choice for a pseudo-event: publicly consuming a feared food in order to “prove” that it’s safe. In 1990, as fears about mad cow disease mounted in the U.K., Agriculture Minister John Gummer famously fed his four-year-old daughter Cordelia a hamburger. She refused to eat it, so Gummer himself took a large bite. The stunt backfired a few years later when the U.K. government was forced to concede the connection between mad cow disease in beef cattle and a new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans.

Since then, risk communication experts (and U.K. parliamentarians) have referred to this reassurance strategy as “doing a Gummer.”

In August 2011, for example, the CEO of Halliburton had an assistant publicly drink a glass of the “frack fluid” his company uses in the controversial process of hydrofracturing rock to release natural gas. A major component of frack fluid is often guar gum, also used extensively in foods, so frack fluid photo-ops can be called “doing a Guar Gummer.”

Another recent example occurred on November 2, 2011, when Japanese official Yasuhiro Sonoda drank a glass of water from a puddle inside one of the stricken Fukushima reactors, while the cameras rolled.

We don’t have data showing whether people in general (or Thais in particular) find official Gummers reassuring. But we doubt it.

There’s a better way. In 2006 when the Republic of Lao had a bird flu outbreak in poultry, the Ministries of Health and Agriculture decided to have a chicken-eating party in a restaurant, with reporters and photographers present, to reassure people that poultry was safe to eat. The World Health Organization epidemiologist based in Lao heard about the plan right in the middle of a three-day regional WHO risk communication workshop in Manila (taught by Jody). The epidemiologist asked the workshop participants to brainstorm a different approach.

The participants recommended moving the event to the kitchen of the restaurant. They suggested that the ministers and other officials put on aprons and take lessons in proper poultry preparation from the restaurant’s kitchen staff. The WHO epidemiologist conveyed this suggestion to the WHO Lao country officer, who passed it on to the Lao Ministry of Health. The ministry convened a quick focus group, which showed that the Lao public loved the idea of seeing senior officials in aprons, learning how to handle raw poultry safely.

So that’s what they did. Instead of claiming to “prove” that it’s safe to eat poultry even in places where bird flu was circulating, the Lao media event showed people how to prepare poultry safely, bird flu or not. Officials demonstrated their concern for the health of the people, not the health of the poultry industry. Paradoxically, that approach is more likely to help the poultry industry recover than the typical poultry promotion PR strategy.

2004: Tsunami

Almost twelve months after Thaksin’s dishonest reassurances about bird flu, the world’s most devastating natural disaster in recorded history occurred: the tsunami following the December 26, 2004 earthquake off the coast of Indonesia.

Several hours after the quake, the tsunami hit Thailand. During those hours, as Thai experts assessed the tsunami risk, they decided not to warn the public. The decision was grounded in a judgment that a warning that turned out unnecessary could prove disastrous to tourism … and to the careers of officials who authorized the warning.

In our January 2005 article “Tsunami Risk Communication: Warnings and the Myth of Panic,” we quoted from an article published in The Financial Times a few days after the tsunami:

Thailand’s meteorological department knew by 8:10 a.m. (local time) on Sunday about an hour before the first waves hit that a powerful earthquake had struck near Sumatra, and they discussed the possibility that the quake could cause large sea disturbances….

But without definitive proof of an imminent tsunami, the meteorological department dared not issue a national warning lest it be accused of spreading panic and hurting the tourism industry if the disturbances did not materialize.

“Not every earthquake that occurs in the sea will cause a tsunami; it is very difficult to know,” said Sumalee Prachuab, a seismologist at the department. “If we issue a warning about the possibility of a tsunami, people will panic very much.

“Phuket is for the tourists, and [if we warn] they will cancel everything,” she said. “Then if the tsunami did not occur, the meteorological department will have many telephone calls, complaining ’why did you make that prediction?’”

2009: Swine flu

By definition, a pandemic spreads worldwide. So when the 2009 swine flu pandemic began, we were bemused when several governments, including Thailand’s, initially emphasized that all the H1N1 cases in their countries were from abroad, insisting that there was no local spread.

These governments did not warn that local spread was inevitable, setting their people up to be shocked and alarmed when local spread was later confirmed.

The Thai government went even further, covering up Thailand’s early cases. When the cover-up was exposed, the health minister expressed frustration that a cover-up had been “necessary” in the first place and that its discovery was considered newsworthy.

His comment on the cover-up: “Can’t the public just accept that a highly competent government is right on top of the problem and there is absolutely nothing to worry about?” He added that “there was no domestic pandemic of the virus and that all of the patients … contracted the swine flu from abroad” – as if domestic contagion weren’t a foregone conclusion.

The Bangkok Post editorialized against the Thai government’s restriction on information about H1N1. The editorial, headlined “Gag on flu is most improper,” began by reminding readers of the “fowl cholera” bird flu cover-up six years earlier. Then the editorial turned to the current policies forbidding local officials to speak out about swine flu, drawing a spectacular set of conclusions about the value of helping people through their adjustment reactions to new risks, not worrying excessively about panic, and avoiding “speak with one voice” constrictions on the free flow of information.

Anyone who thinks the principles of crisis communication are “western” should read this Thai editorial carefully:

The government’s deceit and cover-up of the avian flu epidemic went on for months, as more and more birds dropped dead even in farms with high standards of hygiene. It was not until January 2004, when two farm boys became critically ill from influenza and pressure built up in Parliament, that the government finally admitted sheepishly that the H5N1 virus had been ravaging the poultry sector.

The lesson from the Thaksin administration’s initial cover-up of the avian flu epidemic is that any attempt to prevent the public from learning the truth about a life-threatening phenomenon such as an epidemic – for the simple reason of not causing panic among the public – only puts at risk the very people the government is supposed to protect. The public should have the right of uninterrupted access to accurate and truthful information, which will help them understand the situation and prepare themselves to deal with it.

Hence it is at present beyond comprehension why the Public Health Ministry has put a gag on provincial health officials, prohibiting them from talking to the media about the H1N1 flu virus. The ministry has issued an order that all information about the swine flu be filtered through its office, supposedly to prevent unnecessary confusion stemming from too many people speaking on the same subject and, of course, to pre-empt public panic. Although the gag order may not amount to a cover-up, it will result in information being held up by bureaucratic red tape – information which otherwise would be more useful and could save lives if disseminated promptly.

A later passage in the editorial illustrates another danger of official over-reassurance:  Even legitimately reassuring information loses its credibility. Swine flu was turning out mild and the Thai government was rightly saying so – but the editorial was understandably skeptical:

Also, a recent statement by the ministry’s spokesman, Dr Sutham Srithamma, that the H1N1 virus is not as serious as reported by the media and that 90% [sic] of infected people recover on their own, may be misleading, as this could give those infected a false sense of safety that they don’t need urgent medical help. Although not always deadly, the virus is, without doubt, life-threatening and spreading fast.

Given this history, no one should be surprised by the way the Thai government handled the flood of 2011.

Thai Crisis Communication:
The Great 2011 Flood

Thailand floods regularly, but the flooding that began in July 2011 has been Thailand’s worst in at least five decades. Any discussion of official crisis communication regarding this flood must start with those two facts.

According to Thailand’s Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation, the country experienced about 76 flooding events between 2002 and 2009, which collectively injured 1,514 people, caused 1,011 deaths, and did 46.4 billion baht in damage. The 2010 flood, Thailand’s worst in many years until the current flood, killed about 260 people.

The 2011 flooding that began in northern Thailand in late July has already killed more than 600 people, and has caused more than 600 billion baht (more than $20 billion USD) in damage.

Historically, prior to the 2004 tsunami that killed more than 5,000 people in Thailand, the country perceived itself as not particularly prone to natural disasters. Contrast that with the Philippines, where people readily tell you – ruefully, and a little proudly because of their resilience – that “we are the most disaster-prone country in the world!”

Consider this 2011 assessment, written before the flood in an essay on “Emergency Management in Thailand: On the Way to Creating a More Systematic Approach to Disasters” (Chapter 20 of a fascinating book on “Comparative Emergency Management” around the world, published by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency):

Although the Thai people used to think their country was disaster-free, it appears that the number of disasters is rising and these contemporary disasters produced more destructive impacts than the Thai people ever imagined. While disaster awareness is growing among policy makers, academics, and some groups of the citizens, most populations of the country still lack sufficient awareness, knowledge about disasters, and serious interest in learning how to prevent or respond to them. Thus, the Government needs to work harder to create safety culture and educate its people about disasters and coping methods.

One final piece of background:  Discussions of Thailand’s disaster response usually (and rightly) emphasize the frequent and often sudden changes in Thai governments, and the ongoing tension between civilian governments and the Thai army. These political stressors impede continuity of planning, capacity-building, and public confidence in government entities. They may also impede emergency response itself, especially if a civilian government understandably hesitates to call out the army to help manage the response.

In this context, the worst Thai flooding in at least 50 years began at about the same time that Thailand’s latest Prime Minister took office – Yingluck Shinawatra, whom the New York Times calls “one of the least experienced leaders to emerge in a major Asian country in decades.” PM Yingluck’s older brother is former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the man responsible for covering up Thailand’s H5N1 bird flu outbreaks (and for some of the other “bad examples” we have cited). He was overthrown by a military coup in 2006, and lives in exile.

Given all these conditions, it was exceedingly unlikely that the Thai government’s flood crisis communication would have been anything other than what it was: overconfident over-reassurance.

By October 14, outside experts were publicly saying that the flooding north of Bangkok was the worst they had ever seen. But the new Prime Minister and her officials were busy doing what we have come to think of as typical Thai crisis communication. The October 14 Reuters story was headlined “Thai PM confident Bangkok will escape worst of floods”:

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra tried to reassure residents of Bangkok on Friday that the capital should largely escape the flooding that has covered a third of the country since July and caused damage of at least $3 billion….

“Bangkok may face some problems in areas that are on the outer sides of the irrigation dikes but water levels will not be too high. But inner Bangkok has extremely high defences,” Yingluck told reporters.

“In conclusion, Bangkok should still be considered safe,” she said….

Chalit Damrongsak, director general of the Royal Irrigation Department, said the flows from the north into the Chao Phraya river were lower than expected.

“The water levels that are going to enter Bangkok on October 15–16 will most likely be only at 2.3–2.4 meters. Therefore, it will not surpass Bangkok’s irrigation dike levels of 2.5 meters,” he said. “I can confirm that Bangkok is going to be spared from the flood.”

Inner Bangkok was spared. Many other parts of Bangkok were flooded.

Bangkok’s domestic airport, Don Mueang, has been closed due to flooding since October 25. On October 26, the governor of Bangkok ordered the evacuation of Bangkok’s Don Mueang District. Thailand’s Flood Relief Emergency Centre (FROC) had been located in Don Mueang. On October 29 FROC evacuated its office to the Chatuchak district.

During this slow-motion period of great uncertainty, no one could know how bad the flood might actually get. We don’t doubt that Thai officials had some tentative basis for their reassuring speculation; things might have turned out better than they did and thus the official reassurances might have turned out right. But the core principles of crisis communication under conditions of high uncertainty are to avoid over-reassurance link is to a PDF file (and even to err on the alarming side) and to avoid over-confidence link is to a PDF file (and even to proclaim uncertainty). As it had done so often before, the Thai government violated these principles.

Everyone saw that the flood kept getting worse than officials had over-reassuringly speculated. When that happens, people rationally start to wonder whether their officials are dishonest, incompetent, or both.

On October 25, Anond Snidvongs, executive director of the government’s Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency (and an advisor to PM Yingluck) started doing the kind of good “uncertainty risk communication” that should have been the norm weeks earlier. He told Bloomberg News:

The best-case scenario is that we maintain the situation as it is and all the dikes hold…. We don’t know the probability of that, and I don’t think anyone knows, because we don’t know the strength of the dikes.

A couple of weeks later on November 12, based on evolving data, Anond issued a much more reassuring prediction, as reported by Bloomberg News:

“Inner Bangkok won’t be flooded,” said Anond Snidvongs, executive director of the government’s Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency. “There may be some water bubbling through sewers, but I don’t see that Sathorn, Silom and Sukhumvit will be inundated,” he said, referring to Bangkok’s main commercial and tourist areas.

Anond’s reassurance on November 12 is likely to have had more credibility than many other officials’ reassurances, because he hadn’t been afraid to make alarming predictions earlier. If you make only reassuring predictions – many of them premature and unfounded – how can anyone tell when you really mean it? (We could call this the problem of “The Boy Who Cried No Wolf.”)

Over the course of this flood, and during previous floods, Anond has been a frequent role model of excellent risk communication. A lovely example of bare-knuckled precaution advocacy in the midst of crisis came on November 7, in an AFP article entitled “Floods show what lies ahead for sinking Bangkok.” Anond said that if no action is taken to protect the city, “in 50 years … most of Bangkok will be below sea level.”

Anond also took on the difficult task of managing justified outrage when he repeatedly and humanly communicated with people living outside the dikes that were protecting inner Bangkok. These people rightly felt that their neighborhoods were being subjected to higher flood levels in order to keep the water lower in the key industrial and tourist sections. Anond couldn’t make their anger disappear, of course; there was some violence, and some barriers holding the waters back from inner Bangkok were torn down. But by validating their anger, he helped many people outside the barriers cope with the rational but infuriating official decision that protecting inner Bangkok was more important than protecting the less developed areas outside.

Anond became something of a flood hero, an information source whose credibility was ultimately embraced and leaned on by Thai officialdom, which needed the boost.

We hope some Thai communication expert will do a case study of Anond Snidvongs’s wonderful flood risk communication. We are sorry that we have not been able to gather enough English-language material to write such a study ourselves.

By October 25, with Anond communicating maximum uncertainty about whether the dikes around the city would hold, even the Prime Minister had to modify her over-reassuring posture. The same October 25 Bloomberg News story that carried Anond’s much more vivid warning led with the PM’s incredibly ambivalent one:

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said a “50–50” chance remained that inner Bangkok would avoid flooding as a deluge approaches the city and a coming high tide pushes up water levels.

“I’m still confident that we can protect Bangkok today,” Yingluck told reporters, adding that authorities would be able to defend the city’s main international airport, Suvarnabhumi. Last night she spelled out a worst-case scenario in a national address, warning that water may “run through the center of Bangkok,” with the severity depending on elevation.

Got that? There was a 50–50 chance that water might “run through the center of Bangkok,” but the Prime Minister was nonetheless “still confident that we can protect Bangkok today.”

Lower-level officials showed the same ambivalence. Even when they acknowledged the enormity of the disaster, they often could not resist putting a positive spin on it – as if over-reassurance had become an automatic knee-jerk crisis communication tic. Back on October 5, for example, a flood expert from Thai Integrated Water Resource Management said: “The current flood situation is the worst that I have ever seen and it will last until the first week of November.”

The first half of this sentence was admirably candid. The second half would have been okay if the expert had said “at least the first week of November.” As stated, it turned out unwisely optimistic. By mid-November, the flooding continued to worsen in parts of Bangkok and some surrounding areas, while subsiding in others. On November 16, water experts warned western Bangkok residents (and Reuters headlined) that “floods may last until new year.”

Crisis communication experts know that this one-two punch of reassuring prediction followed by depressing reality is a recipe for credibility meltdown. In a November 3 article on the loss of confidence, Bloomberg News quoted Bangkok resident Supalak Antonna as she waited for a boat to cross a flooded area near the Grand Palace: “I don’t believe in my government anymore…. Many times they would say it’s okay, don’t worry, and two or three days later everything’s flooded.”

We’re not suggesting that everything would have been fine if only Thai leaders had candidly and consistently acknowledged their uncertainty about how bad things might get, and warned people what a worst case scenario might look like. The catastrophic flood would still have come. And most people would still have been unable to prepare adequately. Bangkok alone has 12 million people; huge swathes of the entire northern part of Thailand were under water.

If PM Yingluck had treated her people like grownups, some of them would have been able to make and implement better plans – getting to higher ground; saving their most prized possessions; learning how to turn off their electricity to protect against electrocution; thinking through the best ways to get food and clean water during the emergency.

But even with the most candid warnings in the world, most people wouldn’t have been able to do much to mitigate their risk.

But at least they would have had more reason and more opportunity to prepare emotionally. Residents of Bangkok and surrounding areas deserved to be told that a catastrophe might well be on its way – not because being told would have prevented the flood or enabled them to insulate themselves from it, but because being told would have helped them brace themselves to endure it.

If you think your people can bear the worst flood in their history, you ought to think they can bear knowing that it might be coming.

And candid warnings – instead of overconfident over-reassurances – would have helped maintain what little credibility the Thai government had left.

Candid warnings would also have helped forge a respectful bond between the government and the governed. They could have prepared together, endured the fear and the sense of impending doom together, and experienced hope and relief together as the situation eventually improved.

How does it sound when a leader candidly shares her fears about a looming catastrophe? In February 2011, after weeks of devastating floods, the Australian state of Queensland faced a new threat from Cyclone Yasi. Here is Queensland Premier Anna Bligh talking about that threat, in terms that were human, empathic, no-nonsense, and resilience-inspiring:

“This is a very, very big storm event,” Ms Bligh told ABC radio.…

“I think many people will be very frightened by what they’re hearing,” she said.

“I don’t want to frighten people, or panic them, but all the information I’m getting is that we are facing a potentially very deadly event.

“We have to make sure everybody knows what’s in front of them so they can prepare themselves.”

She said north Queensland residents would need to “prepare themselves mentally for what I think will be quite frightening to those who experience it”.

“We stand ready. It’s not a task that we expected. We thought we’d borne all that we would be expected to bear in the last five weeks.

“But it seems that more is to be asked of us.”

Premier Bligh simultaneously expressed a wish everyone could share, reminding people that worst case scenario warnings don’t always pan out:

“I know cyclones can at the last minute turn off the coast, and I certainly hope this one does.

“But the Bureau [of Meteorology] advises me in the most serious terms, that all of the modelling right now says this is going to cross our coast.”

That is how it sounds when you make a bond with your people, and when you show you expect them to cope with a potential disaster.

Instead, like many other Thai leaders, Prime Minister Yingluck expressed confidence that her people wouldn’t need to cope – that the situation was under control. Even though it wasn’t.

We have no evidence that anything about Thai culture makes overconfident over-reassurance the right crisis communication strategy for a Thai natural disaster. But overconfident over-reassurance has certainly become the conventional strategy for crisis situations in Thailand. We doubt it’s what the Thai people wanted or needed during the disastrous floods that are only now beginning to recede. But it’s presumably what they expected.

Why Thailand?

Is Thai crisis communication more consistently or more egregiously over-reassuring than crisis communication elsewhere in the world?

We have the impression that it is. But we’re far from confident.

We have been following Thai risk communication only since 2003, and only in Thailand’s English-language press. Who knows what conclusions we might have come to if we could read the Thai-language press as well; or if we had started following Thai risk communication decades earlier; or if we could more easily track government risk communication practices in dozens of other countries with a less flourishing English-language press than Thailand? We have a large collection of overconfident, over-reassuring crisis communication examples from all over the world. It’s an extremely common bad practice.

Still, it seems to us that different countries tend to “specialize” in different risk communication errors.

India, for example, is especially prone to hysterical exaggeration of moderate or even small risks. For example, most of our collection of references to swine flu as “dreaded” comes from India … which still routinely uses that adjective to describe the relatively mild, previously pandemic H1N1 influenza strain. Like over-reassurance, risk hysteria is far from rare – but India wins the championship in that category.

And Thailand may reign supreme in the over-reassurance category.

We don’t want to overstate or overvalue these stereotypes. India is a contender in the over-reassurance competition as well. (This mix of hysterical hype and over-reassurance makes Indian risk communication fascinating to watch.) In 2006, India was less than honest about its bird flu outbreaks in poultry, just as Thailand had been in 2003–2004. And in September 2010, in the run-up to the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, Peter documented a stunning example of Indian over-reassurance with regard to dengue.

Early in the swine flu pandemic, we wrote that “The most explicit, excessive, and repeated over-reassurances about containment have come from India.” After giving some impressive examples of empty Indian assurances that swine flu was “under control” in India, we added that in terms of over-reassurance, “India faces stiff competition for the worst-in-class award from Thailand.”

If it’s true that Thai crisis communication is perennially over-reassuring (more so than crisis communication in most other countries), the obvious follow-up question is why. Is the Thai government – which changes hands a good deal more often than most governments – less willing to alarm its citizenry than most governments? (That makes some sense.) Is the Thai citizenry less able to bear anxiety than most citizenries? (We doubt that one.)

Perhaps most important, is there a tacit agreement between the Thai government and the Thai citizenry, whereby citizens allow the government to make misleading claims as the price of being shielded from alarming realities? Does this happen in more individual situations as well? Do Thai doctors usually tell their patients bad news, or do they also shield them from that?

In April 2011, commenting on Japan’s post-tsunami nuclear crisis at Fukushima, one of us (Peter) wondered at length whether alarming speculation in crisis situations (“we’re worried that things could get worse in the following ways…”) might be less appropriate to Japanese culture than to Western cultures. After reviewing what evidence he could find in English, he concluded tentatively that the answer was no.

Now we’re wondering whether Thai culture might go even further in the same direction, countenancing over-reassurance and even outright dishonesty in preference to widespread public anxiety. Again we think the answer is no.

And again our answer is extremely tentative. We have been to Thailand only for a few brief visits, and know little of Thai history and culture. But for what it’s worth, our strong intuition is that there’s nothing about Thai history and culture that makes paternalistic dishonesty the right way to handle Thai crisis communication. Although the various Thai governments keep adopting that strategy, the Thai media (at least the English-language Thai media) keep protesting it.

Digging Out from a History of
Overconfident Over-reassurance

Let’s imagine for the moment that the Yingluck government wanted to change this expectation and launch a new convention of candid crisis communication. Imagine that the government sought our counsel on how best to start changing. What would we advise?

Pudcharee’s initial email framed the issue as how to restore trust. She asked:

Do you have any thoughts on how a government should communicate in this situation and how they might go about restoring trust (if they can)?

Trust is too much to expect any time soon. But here are some suggestions for the near term.

number 1

Stop digging.

The first thing to do when you’re in a hole is: Stop digging. Every instance of governmental overconfident over-reassurance just makes the government’s credibility hole deeper. Thailand needs to stop providing us with ever more bad examples.

We know this is easier said than done. It is nonetheless the essential first step.

number 2

Acknowledge your prior misbehavior.

If stopping a bad behavior is hard, acknowledging it is even harder. Our clients are endlessly asking us if they can’t just mend their ways, without going through the humiliation of owning up. The answer is no, they can’t.

This is partly an ethical principle. When a child has been caught shoplifting or cheating, a wise parent makes the child confess to the shopkeeper or teacher. Resolving privately not to do it again isn’t good enough.

But there’s also a practical reason to acknowledge your prior misbehavior. People expect consistency, especially in other people’s misbehavior. If you have messed up a lot in the past, your friends expect you to keep messing up. So it may take them a long time to notice that you’re not messing up anymore. Individuals can get around that problem by making new friends who don’t know their history. Governments can’t.

Worse than not noticing the change, people may notice it but draw the wrong conclusions. We get used to discounting good news from a source that’s routinely over-optimistic. So when that source says something not-so-optimistic, we may see that as incredibly alarming: “If even Yingluck says it’s bad, it must be horrific!”

What’s the best way to get people to realize that you have turned over a new leaf? Tell them you have turned over a new leaf. They won’t necessarily believe you right away, of course. But the announcement earns you the right to a second look. (Nearly 30 years ago Peter consulted for a local industry association that took this advice literally, making a TV commercial that featured a dozen local plant managers straining to turn over a huge papier mâché leaf. We don’t know if the plants followed through with a better set of policies, but the commercial certainly made the promise vivid.)

Here’s what Thai officials need to say: “We have sometimes been much too reassuring in the past, when in reality we didn’t know how bad a situation might get. Now we’re going to work hard to be more candid about our uncertainty. We will try to communicate what we think are the most likely outcomes, and we will also try to communicate what we think are the worst-case outcomes, the ones we’re most worried about.”

number 3

Apologize for the prior misbehavior.

Even if you acknowledge your prior misbehavior, you still need to make sure people know you know it’s a misbehavior. You can’t acknowledge it proudly!

It’s not enough to say you did something. You have to say you’re sorry you did it. Peter has written at length about the steps in a good apology. We’re not going to reiterate the process here.

A really good apology doesn’t just address what you did wrong; it also addresses why it was wrong. Why is overconfident over-reassurance wrong? It’s wrong partly because it denies people the opportunity to prepare logistically and emotionally for the ordeal that may be coming. And it’s wrong because it induces mistrust.

But even more fundamentally, overconfident over-reassurance is wrong because it demonstrates mistrust. We would love to see Thai officials explain this to the Thai citizenry: “Because we did not trust the public to bear bad news, we taught the public not to trust us to give bad news. We apologize for failing to tell people how bad things might get, but more importantly we apologize for failing to trust people to be able to bear the truth. From now on we will trust our people with bad news.” And the corollary: “And from now on we will not accuse people of ‘panicking’ when they react to bad news by taking common-sense precautions, even if the precautions are not the ones we have officially recommended.”

We have been told that apology is more difficult in Thai culture (like many Asian cultures) than it is in the West. Maybe – we’re not experts and we don’t know. Apology is plenty difficult in the West! What we do know is that every culture has ways to communicate contrition: You did something wrong, you know it was wrong, you’re sorry, and you will try not to do it again. Perhaps a Thai apology sounds different from an American apology. But Thais know how to apologize to Thais – and a culturally appropriate apology is a crucial component of reform.

number 4

Explain the misbehavior.

There’s a component of an effective apology that Peter missed when he wrote about “Saying You’re Sorry” back in 2001. You need to explain your misbehavior – that is, you need to explain what made you do it. In the case at hand, the Thai government needs to explain why it thought it had to be over-reassuring in the face of potential calamity.

Explaining a misbehavior is possible only after you have acknowledged it, acknowledged that it was a misbehavior, and apologized. Any earlier explanation will be heard as an excuse, and will make it harder for people to hear your apology. (If you never get around to apologizing, of course, your explanation really is an excuse – and will backfire for sure.)

Even if you get the order right, it’s important to accompany every explanation with a reiteration of your acknowledgment and apology. Good: “I want to tell you what was in our minds when we made that stupid decision, for which we are forever sorry.” Bad: “Here’s why we did it.”

Among the likely explanations for Thai over-reassurance: army/civilian tensions and the instability of government; the long history of over-reassurance in past crises; the government’s underestimation of the public’s resilience and sturdiness; its “fear of fear” and its tendency to misinterpret legitimate fear as panic; etc.

Given that Thai officials have openly offered the prospect of “public panic” as a reason for cover-ups, officials could now say: “Sometimes we have been too afraid that people would panic if they knew the truth. But Thai people are resilient and sturdy, and we should remember that when we communicate about crises.”

number 5

Authorize candor in your subordinates.

That may be the toughest recommendation on a list of tough recommendations. There are at least three problems with authorizing subordinates to be candid about bad news.

First, it’s hard to trust middle managers that much, especially in a crisis. Everyone knows in principle that crisis communication needs to move faster than routine communication, which means that decisions need to be made lower down in the hierarchy. (The realities of 24/7 social media make speed and decentralization even more crucial.) There’s simply no time for committee editing or management second-guessing in a crisis! But a crisis inevitably means higher levels of uncertainty and higher stakes. And in practice, most organizations – government and corporate alike – get more rigid as the uncertainties and the stakes get higher … which means the approvals process typically gets slower just when it needs to get faster. It’s asking an awful lot to expect top officials of the Thai government to trust middle managers to talk openly about how bad a flood might get.

Second, even if senior officials decide to trust middle managers to talk openly, they’ll find it hard to convince middle managers that they mean it. Simply articulating the principle (“be candid about bad news in emergencies”) won’t necessarily do the trick. Every organization has some principles that are meant to be operationalized and some that are meant to be paid lip-service only. Unfortunately, candor and transparency are typically in the latter category, and sensible middle managers know it. How can you convince middle managers that you really want them to operationalize your principle about not over-reassuring? The key is to convince them that they’ll be rewarded if they’re candid, and punished if they over-reassure. And the only way to do that is actually to reward candor and punish over-reassurance.

The third problem is perhaps the most intransigent. Even if top management means it about no longer over-reassuring, down in the bowels of government are plenty of mid-level bosses who don’t mean it. And very few Thai government officials work directly for Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra; they work for their boss. Even if Yingluck genuinely wants them to be candid rather than over-reassuring, they’re not going to do it unless their boss wants them to do it. So effectively rewarding candor and punishing over-reassurance also means rewarding the boss whose subordinates are candid, and punishing the boss whose subordinates over-reassure. And it means protecting managers on the operational level from a boss whose priorities haven’t changed yet.

number 6

Set up accountability mechanisms.

There’s a column on this website that focuses exclusively on accountability.

All we want to stress here is that a government (or corporation) that has misled people in the past shouldn’t expect people to trust it now. That includes pretty much every government (and pretty much every corporation). It certainly includes the Thai government.

The essence of accountability is reducing the need for trust by enabling people to check up on you and decide for themselves if you’re telling them the truth or not. To quote the wonderful slogan of the U.S. chemical industry’s Responsible Care program back in the 1990s: “Track us, don’t trust us.” Sadly, the slogan went out of use some years ago, but it has never been easier for an organization that really wants to make its claims accountable to do so.

Next time there’s a major flood, the Thai government could make sure all the relevant data are collected on a central website, where government experts, outside experts (in Thailand and around the world) and ordinary citizens were free to do calculations, share assessments, and make predictions – with real-time mini-cams so everyone could see how the numbers and predictions stacked up against actual events.

number 7

Warn people about the new problem that’s sure to emerge.

In case it’s not obvious, the only way to avoid over-reassuring under conditions of high uncertainty is to resolve to err on the alarming side. You know you can’t predict the extent of the flooding (or any crisis) exactly right. So deciding not to over-reassure necessarily means deciding to err on the alarming side – which in turn means that most of the time what actually happens won’t be as bad as your worst-case warning suggested it might be.

And that means you’re going to get criticized for being excessively alarmist.

For instance, the World Health Organization appropriately issued a strong warning about the potential magnitude of the 2009 swine flu pandemic. The pandemic turned out relatively mild, and WHO was accused of alarmism, and even of manufacturing a “fake pandemic” in deference to big pharma. Of course if WHO had minimized the risk and the pandemic had turned out severe, WHO would have been accused of mass murder. Being accused of alarmism is a much, much better problem to have.

But it’s still a problem. See Peter’s article on “Worst Case Scenarios” for some guidance on ways to cope with the problem. One crucial way to cope: Warn people that the crisis might fizzle, and that if it does they’ll probably be pretty irritated at you (in hindsight) for over-reacting.

number 8

Legitimize and share your public’s emotional reactions to the crisis.

The focus of this column has been on over-reassurance about potential disasters – the fact that the Thai government routinely over-reassures its public, why it should stop doing so, and (in this final list of recommendations) how it might begin stopping.

But as we have emphasized several times, being candid about how bad things might get won’t keep things from getting bad. If things do get bad, your candor will have helped only a little, by enabling people to prepare better, logistically and emotionally.

So you need some empathy to accompany your candor. Don’t just acknowledge that things could get bad. Acknowledge that it’s scary, for them and for you. Show people that you can bear your fear (instead of claiming that you’re not afraid), and that you expect them to be able to bear theirs as well. This is one of the most important ways to build a bond between leaders and their publics during a crisis.

Fear isn’t the only crisis-related emotion that effective leaders need to legitimize and share. The first comment on this website’s Guestbook, posted in December 2001 just months after the 9/11 attacks, was entitled “What did Rudy Giuliani do right?” (Giuliani was New York City Mayor during the attacks.) Peter wrote in part:

In the wake of the attacks, Americans were more miserable, even depressed, than we were frightened…. Giuliani modeled coping with misery: feeling it, not denying it; but bearing it, not crumpling under the burden. The moment that crystallized his leadership came only hours after the attacks, when he was asked to estimate how many had died at the World Trade Center. “More than we can bear,” he said, bearing it. Of course a mayor who couldn’t bear it would not have been able to lead us. But a mayor who found it easy to bear, who seemed not to feel the misery, would not have been able to lead us either.

For another example of legitimizing and sharing the public’s emotional reactions to crisis, reread what Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said as Cyclone Yasi approached.

Part of legitimizing and sharing these reactions, by the way, is acknowledging the limits on what anyone – government or citizens – can actually do about the crisis, and how awful it feels for us all to watch and wait (and try to prepare) as the waters rise.

number 9

Consider other strategies of crisis communication and crisis leadership.

We don’t want to turn this column on Thailand’s flood into a crisis communication overview. But once a government decides over-reassurance isn’t the way to go, the door is open for thinking through what to do instead.

The previous two items on this list raise two of the most relevant strategies to replace over-reassurance: warning people that if the crisis fizzles it’ll feel like you overreacted, and legitimizing and sharing people’s emotional reactions to the crisis.

Some places on this website to look for more strategies of crisis communication and crisis leadership:

Copyright © 2011 by Jody Lanard and Peter M. Sandman

For more on crisis communication:    link to Crisis Communication index
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