Beneath a patina of modernity: lessons from a Jakarta crisis

4 years, 5 months ago

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Multinationals operating in Indonesia can learn important crisis management lessons from the high-profile controversy involving a prominent Jakarta school. By Ong Hock Chuan.



For an example of how difficult it is to manage a crisis-like situation in an emerging country like Indonesia consider the case of two foreign teachers and five local cleaners from a prestigious international school in Jakarta.
 
In April last year, the school was plunged into controversy when news broke that the parent of a kindergarten pupil had filed a police report alleging that the Jakarta International School’s cleaners had sexually abused her child.
 
The school reacted as most institutions would. It hunkered down, refused to make any public statements and tried to work the official channels for a solution.
 
It did not work. The school’s silence helped the Indonesian media to portray the school as secretive, arrogant, uncooperative and most probably guilty of harboring the wrongdoers.
 
By the time the school broke silence it was too late. The negative perceptions about the school had set in motion a Kafkaesque situation that would soon see five cleaners sentenced to eight years jail. One of them committed suicide. A Canadian teacher and an Indonesian teaching assistant of the school were also sentenced to 10 years jail for sexual abuse and the mother also filed a multi-million dollar suit against the school.
 
A different truth
 
Now a different truth seems to be emerging. The multi-million dollar suit has been dismissed and a higher Indonesian court set the two teachers free because there was no evidence to support the allegation of sexual assault. The four cleaners still remain in prison.
 
How can such a bizarre turn of events take place in a modern democracy and what lessons can multinationals draw, apart from those contained in standard Crisis Management playbooks, from this incident?
 
Indonesia today, like many emerging countries, seems to be a country on the march. Having shaken off a dictatorship 17 years ago, Indonesia has been working at transitioning toward a modern democracy, complete with state institutions that theoretically can act as a check and balance on each other.
 
But scratch the patina of modernity and a very different reality uncovers itself. Indonesia has a government helmed by a lean but besieged President who needs to fall back on populism and nationalism to remain in power. The judiciary and the police struggle with incompetency and corruption; the Parliament is stuffed with politicians more accustomed to a system of patronage and dynastic succession than the dynamics of a democracy. Add to that a Press that is free but unprofessional.
 
Inequality and resentment
 
And then there is Indonesian society, the majority of whom are on the wrong end of the wealth gap and therefore partial to social jealousies and an underlying resentment of the rich, who seem to be getting richer. Foreigners and foreign institutions are lumped together with the haves. 
 
The first lesson that multinationals operating in such conditions can draw from the JIS case is that as foreigners they are extremely vulnerable to reputational attacks because of the social jealousies and rising nationalistic sentiments. They should therefore go out of their way to appear humble, open, accommodative and culturally sensitive. 
 
Being accommodative doesn’t mean that they cannot be assertive and firm. But they should never be seen as aggressive or obstructionist. Being culturally sensitive is essential, especially when it comes to saying ‘sorry’. 
 
During a crisis-like situation in the West, one of the last things you want to do is to say sorry because it is seen as an admission of culpability. In Indonesia, saying sorry for your shortcomings is an essential part of life from family gatherings to any event involving others.  Multinationals need to educate their headquarters about this and be extra skilled at saying sorry as an expression of regret instead of admission of guilt.
 
Small windows of opportunity
 
The second lesson is that the window for shaping public opinion is extra narrow because of the extensive use of social media in Indonesia. Its capital Jakarta generates more Twitter posts than any other capital in the world and because of the country’s 12 hours time difference with the US, often dominates the trending topics for half a day. Indonesia is also consistently among the Top 5 largest Facebook markets worldwide. 
 
What this means is that information, or disinformation, flows fast and furious. You would quickly lose control of the situation if you do not have a system to monitor and engage in the social media conversations. 
 
The third lesson is that when you come under attack, you are on your own in charting your own destiny. Foreign corporations and organizations invest heavily in Corporate Social Responsibility programs and courting potential allies in the hope that the recipients of such attentions would speak up for them during a crisis. This rarely happens in Indonesia when a foreign corporation or institution comes under attack, so what the multinational needs to do is to realize that it cannot outsource this function. It needs to train spokespersons and be prepared to field them quickly so that they can provide a human face during an attack.
 
Danger behind the scenes
 
The fourth lesson is that the businessperson’s usual instinct to try to solve things through the proper channels behind the scenes can be dangerous. Solving things quietly as a strategy presumes two things: that the attackers will respond well to reason and logic and that the enforcers are impartial, professional and incorruptible. These conditions often do not exist in Indonesia Therefore, communicating publicly becomes a viable alternative strategy. Done well, this would help shape public opinion to pressure the attackers and enforcers to more normal behavior.
 
The fifth lesson is that you will be dealing with a very free but a very competitive and unprofessional media when you come under attack. Indonesian journalists are poorly paid and this contributes to the low professional standards of reporting.  
 
Often, claims and allegations are not counter-checked with the affected parties, spokespersons get misquoted, facts get mangled and sometimes stories are also fabricated. Some journalists are also not above taking money to angle a story a certain way, although many of the journalists shy away from this practice. 
 
Faced with this situation, any multinational under attack must not only make itself readily accessible to any media queries; it should also proactively push its messages during a crisis-like situation. To do so effectively it needs to do a lot of media relations beforehand to know which reporters and media are best to deal with. Moreover, its spokespersons have to be highly trained to communicate succinctly and unambiguously and back all media engagements with written information to prevent misreporting. 
 
These are only some of the lessons that multinationals operating in emerging countries like Indonesia need to be mindful of. The whole picture is actually much more complex and ambiguous to deal with because the practices outlined in the standard playbook on Crisis Management, usually developed in more progressive countries, may not apply. 
 
Things will not get easier for multinationals in today’s climate of economic uncertainty and slowdown because of the devaluation of the Chinese Yuan and the impending tapering of US interest rates. The pressure on everyone will increase and make multinationals even more vulnerable if they are so unlucky as to come under attack. 
 
 
About the author
Ong Hock Chuan has 33 years’ experience in communications, first as a journalist and then as a PR Professional. He co-founded Maverick in 2002 and the firm is now the largest independent PR firm in Indonesia, known for its crisis and issues management capabilities and strategic counsel.
 
 

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The Author

Ong Hock Chuan

Ong Hock Chuan has 33 years’ experience in communications, first as a journalist and then as a PR Professional. He co-founded Maverick in 2002 and the firm is now the largest independent PR firm in Indonesia.

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