'A gamble lost' in bad crisis control

Development chief Paul Chan wasted his chance to clear the air right from the start on his suspected land ownership, analysts say

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 July, 2013, 4:07am

The scandal-stricken development minister may have lost a gamble on his credibility by failing to come clean in time and to reveal the whole picture about conflict-of-interest claims directed against him, observers say.

Because of his tardy admissions, Paul Chan Mo-po now faces the second - if not the last - crisis of his political career since he took the helm of the Development Bureau last July.

"Honesty is the best policy" in handling a public relations crisis amid higher public expectations of the transparency and integrity of top officials, said Yeung Chee-kong, a consultant with extensive public relations experience.

Just days after his appointment, Chan found himself obliged to explain a venture that rented out subdivided flats in properties owned by a local company run by his wife Frieda Hui Po-ming. She has since sold her stake in the firm.

This time, controversy swirls over the Chan family's investment in New Territories agricultural land included in government development plans.

In response, Chan spoke on the issue three times in two days, including on the sidelines of a conference in Tianjin .

His first response came just hours after the Apple Daily published the scandal, instead of the three days he took to meet the media in the previous row.

But while Chan might have learned some lessons from his last predicament, he took a strikingly similar crisis-management approach in giving out information bit by bit.

Previously, he was grilled repeatedly on whether his wife knew about the subdivided flats, and if the partitions existed when they bought them. Chan initially said he was unaware of the "present situation", but later admitted he had known about the partitioned units.

Yeung said Chan could have been more transparent instead of releasing information in bits. Some people tended to think that releasing more information could be more damaging than withholding it, he said.

"Some may have wishful thinking, hoping … no one would find out what was omitted. But it is just a gamble. If one loses, the damage will be far greater."

In Chan's case, the assumption that no one would find out was proven wrong twice. His clarifications failed to stop the media from digging out contradictory details. For instance, he said only his wife and family held stakes in the land, but reports later claimed the family member to whom he referred might be his son, Chan Tin-hsing.

It was not until last night that solid proof emerged, backing his statement that the land stakes had been sold to other parties.

Lingnan University political scientist Li Pang-kwong said Chan missed chances to rectify public perception. "What he can do now is to minimise damage and try to win back trust."