Proper recovery crucial when PR stunts backfire

Rebecca Lim's Instagram feed where she revealed that she was not retiring from showbiz after all but that the entire episode was a publicity stunt involving NTUC Income.
Rebecca Lim's Instagram feed where she revealed that she was not retiring from showbiz after all but that the entire episode was a publicity stunt involving NTUC Income. PHOTO: INSTAGRAM/ REBECCA LIM

The manner in which NTUC Income handled actress Rebecca Lim's "retirement" publicity gimmick defies all good sense - and goodwill - in public relations (PR) management ("Insurer expresses regret over 'retirement' stunt"; Tuesday).

To my mind, PR stunts have the following three Rs of severity:

  • A risky stunt is one that is intended to create product awareness through blatant public panic or stakeholder annoyance, such as the police being called upon to investigate a postbox "vandalism" case by Singapore Post or zookeepers armed with tranquillizers having to locate a "bear" in a stunt by Philips Electronics. Fortunately, Ms Lim's episode does not fall under this worst-case scenario.
  • A roguish stunt is one that is intended to create product awareness by making use of known personalities, such as media celebrities, as in Ms Lim's case, to court controversy.
  • A reasonable stunt is one that uses neither public panic nor celebrity pull to create product awareness, but relies on professional creativity, such as those we see in good quality PR inventiveness by the Health Promotion Board or the Singapore Tourism Board.

The moment a PR stunt backfires, there are recovery mechanisms that allow remorseful perpetrators to redeem their tarnished reputation.

Sadly, Income did not avail itself of these available avenues, but displayed unrepentance by rubbing salt in the wound.

First, it could have apologised sincerely and quickly, and a forgiving public would have accepted it as a genuine mistake.

Instead, its chief marketing officer Marcus Chew expressed "regret", which is PR-speak for no apologies, and brazenly cut Ms Lim off from facing the media at a time when her presence would have smoothed ruffled feathers.

Second, its head of strategic communications Shannen Fong distorted the English language by differentiating "retiring" from "retirement" - an insult to Singaporeans who know their vocabulary better.

Third, Ms Fong turned defensive when asked if the firm could have done anything differently in hindsight, given the backlash.

Instead of addressing the question more constructively and contritely, she had the audacity to reply: "Everything is possible in hindsight. We did not have that hindsight when we started."

The Rebecca Lim PR disaster would not be faulted for the wrong stunt it pulled, but for the arrogance of Income in handling its consequences.

Sunny Goh (Dr)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 18, 2016, with the headline 'Proper recovery crucial when PR stunts backfire'. Print Edition | Subscribe