Prasarana displayed 'lack of empathy' after Malaysia train crash

A lesson in how not to address the public and press following a nationwide crisis.

Rescue personnel help injured passengers following the train crash in Kuala Lumpur (Getty Images)
Rescue personnel help injured passengers following the train crash in Kuala Lumpur (Getty Images)

Last week, two passenger Light Rail Transit (LRT) trains collided in Kuala Lumpur, injuring tens of passengers with six of them in critical condition. The next day, the chairman of Prasarana, the government-owned company that operates public transport, found himself in an embarrassing comms crisis.

During a press conference the day after the incident, Tajuddin Abdul Rahman broke many basic rules when communicating during a crisis. And the next day, following public backlash, he was fired as chairman.

Faridah Hameed (pictured below), a Malaysia-based communications coach for business leaders, told PRWeek Asia that the first boo-boo Abdul Rahman committed was failing to rush to the site on the night of the incident. When questioned by the press about his absence on the day of the accident, he said that he was at another meeting and had to prepare to get his Covid vaccine dose the following day.

“From a comms perspective, when you are the CEO or chairman of a company, and a disaster is unfolding, you have to hightail it to the place where it happened,” said Hameed.

“Because the buck stops with the CEO or leadership. The public wants to see them be in control of the situation. People want to see them with the injured. People want them to be there if there's any urgent decisions that need to be made on-site. Even if you heard the news at midnight, you have to make your way to the site. That is public relations 101. If you're in a leadership position of a public service, you should know that it's what is expected of you.”

The following day, the public took to social media to express their disappointment at the absence of Abdul Rahman at the site, to which he responded with scorn and defence at a press conference. This, according to Hameed, showed a blatant lack of empathy, a quality that’s integral for someone who fronts a major public service.

“He should have been there to even speak to the injured or to visit the hospital, whatever it took to show some empathy. Clearly, the empathy was missing,” she said. This lack of empathy has been a common thread to Abdul Rahman’s comms style, even prior to the accident.

When asked about the exact number of passengers who were injured, footage showed Abdul Rahman’s irritability and defiance. He displayed a similar attitude when fronted with basic questions such as managing the crisis in accordance with Covid movement restrictions, capacity of ICU beds, and time needed to clear the damaged trains from the tracks. Worse still, he appeared to make light of the issue while chuckling at his own ill-timed jokes such as claiming that the trains had ‘kissed each other’ instead of collided.

“This is what happens when someone is in a position of power but they have got no empathy,” said Hameed.

In Malaysia, GLC leaders are often appointed as a loyalty reward for their service in politics, and experience in running organisations may be lacking. In this case, Abdul Rahman has been a member of Parliament since 2008 and held a dual position as Prasarana chairman.

Abdul Rahman was also seen to treat the press poorly during the aftermath of the accident, and a clip of him berating a Chinese reporter went viral. “When you're in a position of power in a crisis, the journalists are there to do their job. But I've also noticed this slide in respect for journalists, when it comes to politicians and people in power,” said Hameed. 

“The slide has been happening quite a lot in the last few years. I felt like people in the late 80s or 90s were a lot more respectful of the media. Now I see that there’s a flippant attitude with the media, and the media has to do something about it.”

One silver lining, however, is that the Malaysian public have taken to social media to voice their frustrations, as well as hold leaders in power accountable. 

“The Prasarana incident shows very clearly that the public is getting tired of this,” said Hameed. “Tired of this arrogance, this lack of accountability, this lack of transparency. And coming off the heels of 1MDB, the Malaysian public is fed up.”

She added that politicians and leaders are not going to get a free pass anymore because of the ‘uprising’ on social media. “I’m proud of the way the public rose to the occasion with this particular case, because I think it puts other GLC leadership teams on notice. And that's a good thing,” she said. 

In Abdul Rahman’s case, Hameed said that an apology should have been present following the accident. She said: “There are many politicians and leaders who struggle to apologise in a meaningful and respectful way because they don't know how to do it. Sure, your comms team can draft it for you, but you still have to deliver it. And delivering it means you have to take responsibility, and you have to admit that you could have done things better.”


 

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