Communicating effectively

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on October 24, 2007

Or making a PR crisis a PR debacle

One of the most popular courses my firm’s training division runs is Effective Presentation Skills. It’s popular for several reasons. First, fierce competition for opportunity means that being able to communicate and present clearly and effectively often means the difference between success and missed opportunity. Second, this is true for everyone. Whether you work as a technical expert or a CEO, you are expected to communicate in a way that impresses colleagues, clients, and even competitors.

The third reason the course is very popular is we have an excellent instructor, whom participants consistently rank as one of our best facilitators and contractors. She’s not just a great instructor, she truly enjoys delivering the seminar, and gets a deep sense of satisfaction from seeing her students improve their abilities to communicate. Frequently, she hears from students relating how the lessons they learned in her class helped close a sale, clinch a promotion, or create a new opportunity.

I’m thinking of offering scholarships to Effective Presentation Skills to spokespersons in key government agencies. Not because I’m feeling particularly generous. Like most business people, my firm benefits from a robust economy. A robust economy, though, is a complex thing. It requires strong underlying fundamentals like a pro-business government, strong fiscal and monetary management, and plentiful resources; in the Philippines’ case, that would be smart, productive people.

Strong fundamentals must be complemented, however, by a strong reputation, or brand identity, if the economy is to achieve its potential. If investors and business people are unaware of the positive attributes of a country like the Philippines, then the Philippines loses out on opportunity because it is usually ignored. Worse, if the country has a negative reputation that overshadows its positive qualities, it is likely to be shunned all together. Capable spokespeople help enhance reputations; poor spokespeople achieve the opposite effect.

Recently, we’ve seen a very respectable level of positive press about the Philippines, most of it praising fiscal reforms that have contributed to increased economic growth, and are likely to continue doing so. The International Monetary Fund recently raised its growth forecast to 6.3 percent for gross domestic product (GDP) from 5.8 percent, citing strong growth in the first half of the year.

If growth continues on track, the Philippines will post the fifth highest growth rate in Asia, surpassing Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia. There’s a good chance it will. Standard & Poor’s even said it could reach as high as 7 percent, following 7.1 percent growth in the first quarter, and 7.5 percent in the second quarter. But there are threats to sustained economic growth.

I’m not referring to high oil prices, global credit woes, or out-pricing the market for domestic helpers necessarily, or even negative fallout in the aftermath of last Friday’s tragic bombing that took the lives of eleven innocent souls who happened to be shopping in the wrong place at the wrong time, and injured scores more. I am referring to how communications surrounding that incident were handled.

Communicating in crisis is never easy, but it is necessary, and it is necessary to do it well. As last Friday’s events unfolded, reporters on the scene said that a liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) canister had exploded. Police reacted to that report saying that the blast was too powerful to be caused by an LPG canister, and speculated that it had been a powerful bomb. Next, we were told that evidence of C4, a powerful military explosive had been found.

As a result of these reports, foreign embassies began warning their citizens in the Philippines to take precautions and to avoid high-traffic areas. The New York Times quoted police chief Avelino Razon’s succinct assessment: “This was a bomb.” As if unsubstantiated reports of a bomb explosion were not bad enough, the element of political instability was introduced when President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo told media, “I warn those who seek to destabilize our government not to exploit this incident for their selfish political motives.”

Yet as seems increasingly clear as this column is filed, last week’s tragedy was not the result of a bomb or an attempt to de-stabilize the Philippine government. While those were easy assumptions, perhaps, to make, the Philippines would have been better served by a spokesperson who quickly addressed citizens, but without fueling fear on the basis of unfounded speculation.

Last Friday’s incident is unlikely to have a substantive negative impact on the Philippines’ reputation. But if it had been handled better, reports suggesting a bomb blast and political instability – never a good thing – wouldn’t be circulating in the world’s most-read newspapers and being reported by television news announcers viewed and listened to by hundreds of millions of people around the world.

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