Dam victims deserve 'non-spin' response

Dam victims deserve 'non-spin' response

The town of Attapeu was pretty well wiped out by the collapse of the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy dam complex on the Sekong River.
The town of Attapeu was pretty well wiped out by the collapse of the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy dam complex on the Sekong River.

The breaching and subsequent flooding of the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy Power Company dam in southern Laos is clearly a disaster. Some 27 people have already been confirmed dead (at the time of writing), while a further 100 remain missing. Numerous villages have been affected by the deluge, with some seemingly beyond recovery.

But, there are disasters and there are disasters.

There is the human disaster. And there is the reputational or messaging disaster.

Managing the latter is a corporate speciality.

The emphasis for such an approach is on minimalism. Company managers would have been keen to ensure that the regulatory bar is set very low, just in case something like this occurs, and that their long-term risk is minor.

An apparent confirmation of this is in the (very few) words offered by the company in reference to the tragedy. A "senior official" (read: media manager) told the Vientiane Times three days after the dam break: "We will take responsibility for the incident in accordance with laws."

The last four words say much more than the previous seven. It looks like an oxymoronic sentence.

The actual response to this human and environmental catastrophe from the company and its stakeholders will almost certainly look like this.

Step One will be to avoid being in the spotlight and to let the situation settle. Making no significant statements is the easiest way to do this. This has occurred already, so tick for Step One.

Step Two will be to seek to blame others for the problem. So far, this seems to be a well-trusted target of such attacks -- Mother Nature -- which, having even less of a voice than the hapless Lao villagers, is not likely to counter.

Unexpectedly high rainfall has been slated as the cause of the dam wall bursting -- the fact that it's the rainy season in Southeast Asia, a time noted for massive rainfall in short periods doesn't seem to have been considered -- so, we can now tick Step Two.

Once culpability has been diverted, Step Three will be when the company will spin the dynamic and get on the front foot, by loudly announcing its intention to spend big money on aid and repatriation for the victims of the tragedy.

The numbers will be impressive enough to look like everything is being done to help those who have suffered as a result of a "natural" event. There will be events to hand over money, to rebuild bridges and to construct homes and occasions for suited heavyweights to shake hands and look benevolent.

Subsequent company reports will be peppered with the faces of smiling children and perhaps the obligatory rustic farmer's hand cupping a pile of dirt with a fresh green seedling propped in it.

PR management and reputational control thus becomes cloaked in disaster aid and even, unfortunately, as corporate social responsibility (CSR). It will be like the disaster wasn't even the company's issue and that they are all doing great work helping the poor villagers overcome a catastrophe due entirely to nature's unpredictability.

The link between the company and its role in the deaths, injuries and environmental destruction is widened to the point, the company hopes, that it disappears altogether.

The money spent in aid is simply a cost of doing business.

What won't happen is a complete reassessment of the culture that led to the disaster in the first place.

According to the International Rivers, 35% of the mighty Mekong River flows through Laos.

The country's government wants to convert this enormous resource into hydropower to export to the region, especially into Vietnam and Thailand.

Already, the country's hydro trade account for 30% of its total exports and the plan is to double the capacity by 2020. The rest of Laos' economy is unlikely, of course, to be on a similar trajectory and so, hydropower will almost certainly become the country's dominant export: think Saudi Arabia in the tropics.

The comparison is added to by the fact that, like the Saudi kingdom, Laos is ruled by a single party state apparatus, and has been since 1975.

Also, like the Saudis in the early days of their resources boom, Lao leaders appear to have been shafted by big overseas operators -- from countries as diverse as Japan, Norway and France and including the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank -- who have ensured that the country not only exports up to two-thirds of its own hydropower, but that its citizens have to buy it back at premium cost.

As the Saudis have belatedly learned, this scenario is not sustainable.

In the wake of this latest disaster, there is a chance to actually throw out the weathered and worn reputation management PR playbook and to deploy a form of crisis follow-up that actually factors in the causational roots of the event.

Sure, infrastructure is needed, perhaps even on this scale. But, is there a better way to do it? Isn't that the kind of question company managers should be asking?

This crisis and its victims, demands a more attentive response, one which seeks to address the very structure of the plan and which gives ordinary Laos a voice in the process.

That this is not only a task for the companies but for the Lao government is without doubt. But, there are ways that the company and its stakeholders can help put the people of Laos in a better position, even if only within their own company structure.

Those who have lost their lives, homes and livelihoods in this awful tragedy deserve no less a legacy.

James Rose is author of Ethical and Active Shareholding, a CSR and media consultant, and is former Asia-Pacific editor of Ethical Corporation magazine.

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