An abbreviated version of this article was first published in the Vietnam Investment Review (in Vietnamese).
That thousands of people took to the streets across Vietnam early May 2016 to protest the contamination of hundreds of kilometres of Ha Thinh province coastline was the culmination of a catalogue of errors by the alleged culprit – a Formosa Plastics steel plant – and the Vietnamese authorities, that inadvertently turned a serious incident into a major public crisis.
The spat also raises questions about how fit for purpose Hanoi and major companies in Vietnam are when it comes to managing disasters and crises.
When people first started complaining on Facebook about dead and rotting fish and shrimp in early April, Formosa Plastics initially said nothing and then denied wrong doing. Two weeks later a company PR official antagonised local fisherman by arguing the Vietnamese had to make a choice between catching and selling fish, or developing the steel industry.
Officials in Hanoi failed to make matters better by initially defending the company and then arguing there was no proof it was to blame and suggesting human discharge or ‘red tides’ of algae could be the problem, prompting local protesters to take to the streets and even to petition Barack Obama to launch an independent investigation. Vietnamese authorities were also found to be blocking Facebook and Instagram during the protests.
Perhaps Formosa Plastics and Hanoi were taken aback with good reason. After all, ordinary Vietnamese are little known for publicly opposing issues seen as detrimental to their interests and livelihoods, however controversial or potentially damaging they may be.
And thanks to highly controlled political, media and business environments, very few Vietnamese organisations have any experience of having to manage and defend their reputations in the open court of public opinion.
Yet one does not have to look far to see how the expectations and behaviours of citizens, consumers, local communities, activist groups and other stakeholder groups have been transformed by the internet and social media.
Even in China, any and all of these groups now regularly take to the social web to make their voices heard, galvanise support, raise funds and organise protests – virtual and physical. And they do so instantly and often in large numbers.
While China may have had considerable success limiting online chatter, institutions across the region are struggling to contain internet-based grassroots movements, despite the many tools and techniques available to block, limit or otherwise disrupt news, information and commentary.
With the accountability genie out of the bottle and with little way of stuffing it back in, how can governments and businesses better manage disasters and crises?
Fortunately, the strategies, tactics and techniques required to manage issues and crises in today’s flat, open, digital world are becoming steadily clearer. And while complaints, allegations and smoking guns frequently first manifest themselves online, the rules of how to deal with them as they escalate are not broadly similar to what they were before smartphones and Facebook took over.
Like for ‘traditional’ issues and crisis management, much comes down to good listening and having the ability to spot potential problems before they escalate into incidents or even crises, and the internal processes to be able to assess these issues quickly and thoroughly before identifying the appropriate response.
While there are many free tools that can help companies keep abreast of what’s being said about them and about issues relevant to them, there are also now a host of paid online and social media listening tools such as Synthesio, Meltwater or Vietnam’s Boomerang that enable companies to identify, track and analyse potential problems online in real-time.
Furthermore, the more sophisticated listening tools will send email or SMS alerts to team members when mentions of a given keyword or phrase hits a specified level, and/or turns from negative to very negative, enabling companies to hone in quickly on what really matters when it comes to assessment a problem: the motivation of the user, the credibility of the complaint or allegation, and the broader context in which it is being made.
Much also hinges on getting the response right, which can be challenging when everyone seems to be talking about the issue, it is quickly going viral, corporate leadership has gone missing and the scope for denying or ‘spinning’ a story is increasingly limited.
And in a medium that values emotion over facts, it is doubly important that the initial response to an escalating issue or a bone fide crisis gives the impression of openness and honesty, that it is being treated seriously and as a priority, and is crafted in a language and tone that ordinary people can understand, relate to and appreciate.
Had Formosa Plastics and the Vietnamese government responded quickly, honestly, constructively and empathetically to the pollution allegations in Ha Thinh province, they would far more likely have been given the benefit of the doubt. Instead, both found themselves caught in the headlights of searing public distrust and with little obvious place to turn for comfort.
UPDATE: Taiwan Formosa has admitted responsibility for the toxic spill, and will pay USD 500 million in compensation.