PR nightmare in midnight handover

Editorial | Mary Ma 5 Sep 2018

The handover of part of the West Kowloon Terminus to mainland control was supposed to be a historical moment. But unlike the previous occasions, this one was held with no fanfare or publicity until everything was finished.

As a member of the press, I'm disappointed and don't understand the administration's concern.

The government issued an announcement five minutes after Monday midnight, saying the ceremony had been held, with Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan Fan representing the SAR in handing over the designated port area to the mainland in a handshake with Guangdong deputy secretary general Lin Ji.

The ceremony that started at 11.45pm was short and simple.

However, from the media's point of view, it was symbolic, and they would have liked to have the choice to be there, rather than relying on the Information Services Department for official photographs and press release.

Even from the public relations perspective, it wasn't clever either, since there was nothing to hide, and it would have been risk-free to invite the press to cover the handover. While officials didn't have to play up the event, it was also unnecessary to play it down.

Officials should be well aware that given the tough operating environment, it would have indeed posed a challenge for the media to send someone to report on the event at midnight.

Had the media corps been invited, Civic Party lawmaker Tanya Chan Suk-chong wouldn't have been able to create the noise she's making now. The event wasn't as secretive as claimed by Chan, but the public perception could have been better.

It was appropriate of Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to remind her subordinates of the need to respond to queries as quickly as possible. If public relations is mishandled, public confidence can be eroded drip by drip to give rise to totally unwarranted PR blunders.

That's especially the case when other incidents happened concurrently.

Besides the "stealthy" midnight handover, there were also the so-called "meal box" controversy, in that the MTR Corporation would be responsible for annually providing HK$100 million worth of meal boxes to feed the mainland personnel working at the terminus, as well as the "discovery" of Basement 5 that had never been disclosed to the public.

Strictly speaking, they were the very least examples of miscommunication.

Three local media organizations quoted sources as saying the MTRC would make arrangements to feed the 700-strong mainland staff working at the terminus at an estimated cost of HK$100 million a year - averaging some HK$100 per meal box - whereas those staff members are entitled to an allowance of only six yuan (HK$6.88) per meal.

So, what could that mean? MTRC footing the rest of the bill?

It was a legitimate query, and hours after the reports appeared, the corporation said the mainland would pay for it. However, it was subsequently discovered the media had been asking that question since Friday, and nobody was in a position to provide the answer right away. Perhaps, they had never thought about the simple question.

PR is all about the details, that can be more challenging than thought.

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