Opinion: Crisis Confusion

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It’s time the HKU Council took responsibility for poor reputation management.


Winston Churchill once quipped that one should never let a good crisis go to waste. Sadly, nobody has informed the Hong Kong University (HKU) Council.

By now, most Hongkongers are aware of the university governing body’s year-long tragedy in two acts. Act One was the politically charged proxy battle between pro-establishment and pan-democratic supporters over the candidacy of Johannes Chan Man-mun (陳文敏) for a Pro-Vice-Chancellor position. Act Two is the ongoing debate over the confidentiality of Council deliberations, prompted by a steady stream of leaks.

In fact, the Council’s 29 September rejection of Chan offered a chance for HKU to rebound. Forward-thinking leaders would have proactively acknowledged the controversy, published their rationale for the rejection, and attempted to turn crisis into opportunity by announcing that, henceforth, the university would be a regional champion of transparency. Picture a series of conferences around this theme, attended by the world’s most illustrious academics. The possibilities would have been endless.

Of course, this would have required the Council and HKU’s media team to have some competency in crisis communication. Rather the university has continued its reactive approach, allowing critics to define the message and putting HKU’s reputation at risk. We can only blame the Council for this.

Whose Responsibility?

According to the HKU Ordinance, the Council is the university’s highest governing body. It has the authority to handle “all affairs whatsoever of the university”. Stakeholder communication, whether through HKU spokespersons or the Council itself, would be included.

Although HKU is a company limited by guarantee and not by share, the Council must still strive to maintain “value” in a crisis. That value is contained within the participation of the university’s guarantors – the administrators, faculty, students, alumni and other groups specified in the ordinance. Simply put, it is the Council’s job to fight fires that might otherwise turn guarantors away.

Therefore, Council member Arthur Li Kwok-cheung (李國章)’s branding of one student whistleblower as a “liar” is unhelpful. Likewise, member Leonie Ki Man-fung (紀文鳳)’s claim that the release of a leaked audio clip is “a deliberate use of unscrupulous means” misses the fact that the Council should be trying to avoid crises in the first place.

Stakeholders’ morality and means are secondary concerns, especially since organisations rarely have the luxury of choosing cooperative stakeholders. It is more important to formulate a strategy to address stakeholder concerns head-on. In fact, under a “good” crisis communication strategy, neither Li nor Ki would have commented in the first place.

Poor Marks for Strategy

Under such a strategy, the Council would be constantly on the lookout for emerging crises. It would also designate a crisis-management team and choose a trained spokesperson. This team would monitor unfolding crises and develop statements to match, undertaking adjustments in line with the progression of events. Statements would be proactive, informative and tailored to stakeholder concerns. Post-crisis re-assessment and analysis would conclude the process.

Even without knowing any details of HKU’s internal deliberations over the crisis, we can immediately suspect several lapses of judgment among the Council and/or the HKU media team.

Foremost is either a lack of concern for or an inability to anticipate crisis development and progression. With the dust barely settled on the Occupy protests in January 2015, it was clear that criticism of Johannes Chan, an Occupy supporter, by pro-establishment newspapers had the potential to light a damaging fire. Yet, despite ample debate among media and university stakeholder groups in the early days of the controversy, the university issued no official statements at that time. This would have been a golden opportunity to state clearly the criteria against which Chan would later be assessed.

More serious is the Council’s inability to grasp the consequences of its refusal to release its rationale for Chan’s ultimate rejection. In light of the fact that a full-blown crisis was underway, surely some transparency was justified at the expense of a one-time exception to confidentiality rules.

Most damning of all is the lack of a strategy adjustment once whistleblowers learned how to use a Taiwan discussion board to circumvent the Council’s High Court gag order on disclosure of its deliberations. Instead, the Council hunkered down and collectively endorsed the original gag order, as reported by member Abraham Razack. The first official HKU press release that even acknowledged the ongoing leaks came over two weeks later.

Of course, referring to “the Council” as a collective can’t hide the fact that the body has rarely spoken with one voice. Was former Chairman Leong Che-hung (梁智鴻) a crisis spokesperson? Before his term ended on 6 November, his voice was among the most audible. Then why does a 2 November HKU press release on the gag order refer the media to three HKU media relations personnel? And why, at various times, have Vice-Chancellor Peter Mathieson as well as Council members Arthur Li, Leonie Ki, Rosanna Wong (王䓪鳴) and and Abraham Razack (石禮謙) offered their own comments to the media?

It is clear that if any crisis management and communication strategy existed, it was poorly executed.

Troubling Implications

This raises two troubling questions. Whom shall be held accountable and how?

Internal stakeholder groups elect nine members and may vote those members out in due course, if they desire. These elected members are no cause for concern. Another eight members are appointed by and accountable to the Council itself. Provided the rest of the body is selected properly, there should be no problem here either.

Chief Executive and HKU Chancellor Leung Chun-ying appoints the remaining seven members. If he is unsatisfied with their performance, he might choose other appointees later.

Yet, Leung’s actions suggest his own negligence. After a convocation of alumni and staff overwhelmingly passed two motions that declared the leaks  consistent with the spirit of whistleblowing and called on the Council to make public the reasons for Chan’s rejection, the Chief Executive simply referred back to un-enforceable confidentiality rules. Neither motion would have been proposed had the Council been more forthcoming. Meanwhile, Leung would have been spared the need to comment further on a situation that has become an indelible blot on an esteemed institution’s reputation.

HKU needs a governing body that can visualize the big picture and spearhead strategies that make the university shine. In what should have been a glorious story, debates over Chan’s candidacy and the issue of confidentiality should never have been more than footnotes.