How do you put out fires when disaster strikes during something as important as the national elections?

Remember last May’s elections and the Comelec seven-hour blackout due to a failed transparency server? How does one manage crises during important events like these? How does one even know if they have a crisis already? And what kind of role does social media play in an election? Amor Maclang, globally awarded brand architect, marketing movement maker, and risk and reputation strategist, guested on “OneNews with Cito Beltran” last June and talked about crisis management particularly in line with the recent national elections.

How to recognize a crisis

No one wanted to recognize the fact that there was a crisis, according to Beltran. “There was a cumulative lack of confidence with Comelec,” said Amor, after all the business of voting last elections. “How come no one’s recognizing it—are we the only people recognizing it?”

“Our culture in general as Filipinos, such as our saying, ‘Bahala na,’ or ‘Bahala na si Batman,’ says that it’s better if you don’t talk about the crisis or the problem because it might happen,” she pointed out. “What occurs is that we ignore what could potentially escalate into a negative in the hope that it won’t happen.” She said that corporations in particular don’t want to recognize when situations become negative.

But it had turned negative. As Beltran said, NAMFREL butted heads with Comelec. The senate also scheduled an investigation into the electoral process and the commissioners of Comelec didn't just become evasive due to this development, but combative.

When corporations do this, they may look defensive and look like they have something to hide from the public. “It bothers me that they lose their cool to the public because they need to, whether or not they’re at fault, assure the public that they have everything under control despite the fact that they’re going through a crisis,” explained Amor.

So how can one tell that the COMELEC already had a crisis?

One of the red flags, according to Amor, is when social media is already focused on the inefficiencies of the election process and posting about it. Another red flag that the situation had already turned into a crisis was when someone as high-profile as former Vice President Jejeomar Binay started complaining about the defective server.

Overcommunication is important

The irony during the elections was that it was the lack of transparency of the Comelec’s transparency server that caused people to react negatively. “The machine was only one aspect of it,” said Amor. “What people were really decrying is the lack of transparency. Because what is the role of the Comelec? It’s not just to manage the outcome of the elections. It’s also about engagement, not just governance. So if you’re talking about engagement, that includes things like educating the public—and it’s not just about shading the ballot. It includes things like how to educate on the right choices. Taking care of the customer experience.”

She emphasized that in the social media age, “radical transparency” is a must. “In the case of an issue escalating into a crisis, the rule of the game is to overcommunicate. In other words, keep your cool and overcommunicate. So you need to continue updating your stakeholders, or in this case, the public," Amor stressed.

"This includes the good, the bad, and the ugly—especially the ugly. So if something is amiss and you’re experiencing problems, the public would want us to break it down for them, ‘What’s happening? What is a Java error, what is fluctuation of servers?’

Amor recommended that the Comelec should have had a channel online or explanatory notes, because the best way to assure the public and stakeholders that one is in control is to be constantly available.

Appoint the right representatives

Other PR don’ts that occurred during the elections was how come it was James Jimenez, a voter educator, who was talking to the people during the elections, and not even a commissioner.

When the commissioners did come out to talk to the public, they started speaking in tech jargon.
"In the case of an issue or a crisis situation, number one, there should be a person in charge, or crisis manager, and number two, there should be a spokesperson," Amor emphasized.

These two are separate, and according to Amor, cannot be embedded in the organization so that they can maintain objectivity. “Our commissioners, no matter how potentially proficient they are, may not be the best people to explain what’s happening,” she said. The spokesperson would then be the one to give the technical blow-by-blow to the public.

Be generative and make crisis management part of business plans

Comelec should have also been prepared for this scenario months in advance since they’ve encountered challenges like this before. “You need to practice and keep practicing for something that you hope will never happen,” said Beltran.

However, it’s also in the culture of Filipinos to not anticipate and prepare for problems. “We dwell on our problems, but we don’t anticipate our problems,” he said.
Amor, in turn, attributed this to the telenovela mentality; Filipinos love telenovelas as well as reveling in their real-life dramas. “’A part of me thinks that we enjoy the drama and it makes us feel important,” added Amor.

She said that Filipinos need to be generative. This is one step higher than being proactive. “When you’re generative, you anticipate that a disaster can happen and dealing with it is actually part of your business plan,” she explained.

Amor herself wondered if the Comelec created a business continuity program. “You don’t prepare a statement or a step-by-step plan as it happens. You should’ve prepared that, locked away. The thing you should’ve done is gotten the key, taken out the files, and just run by the playbook,” she said.

Beltran then pointed out that the Comelec should be run like a corporation or business, and not like a government agency. “We need to war room it—how do we react [when something like this happens]? What do we say?” added Amor. “So it’s all about practice.”