Thursday, November 3, 2011
FROC: How not to run a crisis management center
Premier Yingluck has insisted that her approach to the ongoing severe flood disaster is “politics-free.” But there are no genuine signs of any real non-partisan efforts to overcome the country’s worst natural disaster so far.
Besides, the government’s style of crisis (mis)management has alienated most flood victims who couldn’t rely on timely information and guidance from the Flood Relief Operations Center (FROC) from Day One of the inundation.
FROC has failed miserably in crisis communications. The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. The central government represented by FROC and the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) have been at loggerheads despite their repeated public statements to the contrary.
Politicians have been rubbing shoulders and shouting orders at the FROC headquarters. They all had their underlings (mostly bureaucrats) lobbying for their own priorities which were to do everything possible to prevent their constituencies from getting wet.
FROC’s director, Police Gen Pracha Promnok, is justice minister who belongs to a small political party in the coalition. Most of the Pheu Thai Cabinet members, MPs and their advisers do not feel obliged to follow his instructions. Pracha himself isn’t known to have managed any crisis, big or small, before. And he could hardly expect Premier Yingluck Shinawatra to be by his side, making sure everybody follow the director’s orders. She has her own problems exercising control over her own party.
If things get messy at times, an efficient PR operations that communicate with the public on a timely and convincing manner might have saved the day. That wasn’t to be the case. Two spokesmen – also totally unprepared for such a critical campaign where credibility is the key – were put in charge of the telling the people what was happening.
They could have managed to muddle through had the decision-makers been clear and professional about what they wanted to tell an anxious, skeptical and scared public. That again was sorely missing. Nobody was sure who was in charge of FROC but it was clear from accounts leaked by insiders that the management structure was, to say the least, chaotic.
To be sure, there was no lack of experts on floods and water at the operations center. But their analyses and proposals sidelined by politicians who couldn’t agree on the course of action and were shouting conflicting instructions to the officials who were supposed to be responding to a rapidly worsening flooding situation in provinces north of Bangkok.
There was little doubt therefore that the two spokesmen, whose junior ranks carried no weight whatsoever in the government’s hierarchy, were making fools of themselves on television many times a day. They were saying the situation “is well under control” when in fact they didn’t really know what was happening behind the scenes.
One day, FROC’s Director Pracha read out a long report, ending by declaring that the flood situation was under full control of the government, adding somewhat wistfully: “But we do need lots of large-sized water pumps and I hereby ask the private sector to donate them to help in draining water.”
Things should have been the other way round, of course. One would have thought that if you were short of flood-fighting equipment, the first place to seek help would be the government. Now, the seniormost guy in the country’s top flood-relief agency was asking you to help provide them with water pump. And we were supposed to be in a real crisis.
The gravest failure in crisis communications was probably in the inability to help residents on different sides of the embankments to avoid clashes resulting in barriers to be torn down by angry people who felt they were at the wrong end of the problem. FROC was supposed to be the agency to mediate among the conflicting parties. Instead, some of the government MPs were engineering the confrontations themselves.
FROC has replaced the spokesman. Premier Yingluck says she is inviting Opposition leader Abhisit to join her in the flood fight. Bangkok Governor M.R. Sukhumbhand is still giving his press conference in parallel with FROC’s. Confusion grows.
As I write this, the FROC’s spokesman was saying that government officials are to return to work on Tuesday after a five-day holiday to cope with the rising floods. But the Bangkok governor just announced that Bangkoks’s Talingchan and Laksi were now designated danger zones and everybody had to be evacuated.
One university lecturer just tweeted: “The central government wants us to go back to work. The Bangkok governor tells us to evacuate. Can’t they discuss it and agree on something and tell us what it is all about?”
Situation normal, all fouled up?