Canto-pop king Leon Lai shows Hong Kong’s chief executive Leung Chun-ying how to handle a crisis
Albert Cheng says Hong Kong people who despair of the chief executive’s public relations bungles – most recently over his daughter’s left luggage – have found a public figure to praise for getting it right
Singer Leon Lai Ming has recently become an accidental hero, thanks mostly to Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s unpopularity.
Forty-nine-year-old Lai is known as one of the four “heavenly kings” of Canto-pop. A Unicef Goodwill Ambassador, he is also recognised for his contributions to children’s welfare.
Lai was due to perform six concerts at the Central Harbourfront from April 28 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his stellar career. However, the first performance was cancelled after the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department refused to grant a temporary permit because the supposedly fireproof material used for a marquee to house 4,500 fans failed to meet fire safety standards.
The way Lai handled the cancellation has been widely applauded by the press, academics, commentators and fans. His crisis management skills contrasted sharply with the way the chief executive and his team have dealt with the airport luggage saga caused by his absent-minded daughter.
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Despite his big public relations machine, Leung has been haunted by the incident for nearly a month. Accusations have included abuse of power and bypassing airport security rules to get airport staff to take his daughter’s left luggage into the restricted zone. Leung has denied any wrongdoing or even oversight. The Security Bureau, Civil Aviation Department, Airport Authority and Cathy Pacific have all been drawn into the vortex to defend Leung and his family. Officials have published reports and attended meetings with legislators. Yet, the issue refuses to go away.
The crux of the matter is whether a passenger is required to be present while his or her luggage goes through security checks. Critics cite international guidelines and insist this should be so. Officials say it is not necessary but have failed to clarify under what circumstances or for whom such discretion can be exercised. The best Leung can hope for is that the issue will soon be eclipsed by a bigger blunder.
Hong Kong Canto-pop king Leon Lai finally wows the crowds, although some had to listen outside the venue
In contrast to Leung’s denials, Lai’s straightforward apology and pledge to take immediate remedial action came as a breath of fresh air. The concert cancellation had all the ingredients of a perfect PR disaster – high public expectations, a possible cover-up of mistakes and a gathering crowd. Lai responded by using Facebook to explain what had happened and apologise to the affected concert goers and the public.
Lai did a number of things right. First, he uploaded personal videos, without resorting to others for help. The setting was simple and Lai spoke sincerely ad lib. It did not come across as a contrived PR stunt. Second, he had a full grasp of the situation and was able to give details without referring to a prepared script. Third, he was prepared to shoulder full responsibility for the incident. His mea culpa came with a clear message that government departments were not to blame.
He did not use flowery language, and he was frank. That won the hearts and sympathy not only of his fans but also many Hong Kong people.
His performance wasn’t perfect, for sure. Did he know of the problem with the fireproof material beforehand? If not, why not? If he did, why did he not take action earlier? His remarks that the material did not meet fire safety requirements because it was manufactured on the mainland also touched a raw nerve. The material met China’s own safety standards but local authorities insist on applying British standards. The Chinese supplier should not be made a scapegoat. It would seem the organiser had tried to cut costs by opting for a Chinese source.
The organiser eventually decided to do away with the huge marquee and turn the concert into an open-air event, thus depriving the audience of the “4D” effects. Tickets cost as much as HK$1,980 for the best seats.
Lai has emerged unscathed. His reputation has gained a new dimension. He should count his blessings, and is indebted to his fans for their tolerance.
Perhaps it’s time for our uncommunicative chief executive to attend one of Lai’s shows to see why the man is so persuasive.
Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. [email protected]