16 February 2019
Leon Lai immediately announced the cancellation of his concert on Facebook and sent out press releases giving the reason. Photo: Facebook/Leon Lai
Leon Lai immediately announced the cancellation of his concert on Facebook and sent out press releases giving the reason. Photo: Facebook/Leon Lai

Leon Lai vs. Leung Chun-ying

The recent saga over superstar Leon Lai’s canceled concert is a classic example of how a public figure can defuse a crisis that could have turned into a PR disaster, using skillful communication techniques and sensible PR tactics.

By stark contrast, the way Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying handled his daughter’s “Lug-gate” saga was another textbook case of how a glitch can snowball into a huge public controversy as a result of poor PR skills, buck passing, mendacity of the people involved, and a lot of nerve.

In fact, Lai’s sound crisis management skills emerged just in time to highlight Leung’s cockiness, condescension and shamelessness in face of grave public concern over his alleged abuse of power.

Leung could have defused the Lug-gate crisis pretty easily if he had had the guts and integrity like Lai to come clean and confess what he did in front of the public.

Unfortunately, the way he handled the whole incident just couldn’t have been worse.

And isn’t it absolutely mind-boggling that Leung and all his advisers, with an awful lot of resources at their disposal, cannot even compare with a retired pop singer with zero political experience in handling a PR crisis?

Frankly speaking, by professional standards, there was nothing really extraordinary about the way Lai handled the sudden cancellation of his outdoor concert on the evening of April 28.

What he did was just PR 101: immediately announcing the cancellation of his show on Facebook, sending press releases to the media explaining the reason for the cancellation, giving TV interviews on the matter, and apologizing in person to his fans.

These were all basic steps to minimize the negative impact in the aftermath of an emergency that any good PR expert would have told you to take.

However, what makes Lai stand out this time is the speed and degree of proactiveness with which he reacted to the incident and explained to his fans and the public why his eagerly awaited show was suddenly bungled.

Shortly after news of the cancellation of his concert had come to light, he took it upon himself to explain and apologize to his disappointed fans by appearing at the entrance gate of the venue himself, unaccompanied by any PR executives, and speaking face to face without a script through a megaphone to the hundreds of people who were waiting to get in about what happened.

It is quite rare not only for a superstar like him but also for our political leaders to confess to their mistakes publicly like that.

The entire improvised news conference was broadcast live on Facebook.

And his proactive and courageous move did pay off: rather than getting angry, the overwhelming majority of his fans were moved by their idol’s sincerity and his courage in facing the crowd.

Moreover, he also demonstrated backbone and integrity by bearing full responsibility for the blunder and urging his fans not to blame the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department for refusing to give his concert the green light.

His courage in making himself accountable for his own mistakes is a complete contrast to the behavior of Leung and his cabinet members, who, over the years, have only shown their ability to avoid responsibility or pass the buck whenever something bad involving the government happens.

Simply put, Lai has given a textbook example of how to defuse a PR crisis perfectly.

If Leung had adopted the same approach over his Lug-gate crisis, the whole thing might not have provoked such a firestorm of controversy and public anger.

However, even though Lai rode out this crisis pretty impressively, it doesn’t make him less guilty of gross negligence, and one should not overrate how he reacted and behaved after his show had been canceled.

After all, it was his concert, and he had been actively involved in the preparation for it — just check out the video clips he had uploaded onto his Facebook page.

So, he could have by no means been unaware that the material for the giant tent that was used to house the outdoor venue did not meet official safety standards. I also believe the authorities gave him sufficient time to replace it with adequately fireproof material.

Therefore, the only possible explanation for the last-minute cancellation of his concert was his procrastination in an attempt to save costs.

That he urged his fans not to blame the government could also have been a PR tactic to prevent the authorities from releasing further incriminatory details.

In fact the people of Hong Kong should give the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department credit this time for its professionalism and its dogged insistence on upholding the most rigorous safety standards when it comes to large public events.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 6.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Former radio talk show host; Columnist at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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