A collapsed ceiling, crisis communication and human behaviour

In a crisis, it is important to quell speculation and rumours immediately. Otherwise, it could lead to untruths and finger pointing. This leads to my second point about human behaviour.

Mar 10, 2023

On February 10, parts of the ceiling of the Cathedral of St John the Evangelist in Kuala Lumpur collapsed. The incident happened around 2.30pm, just after the 1.00pm Friday Mass. Thankfully, nobody was injured in the incident. However, the altar area was damaged and a few pews destroyed. Archbishop Julian Leow’s chair and the tombs of Anthony Soter Cardinal Fernandez and Archbishop Dominic Vendargon were not damaged.

I cringe to think that the incident could have caused fatalities. But at the same time, my heart praised the Almighty for protecting the people of God who had attended Mass at the Cathedral that afternoon. The incident also gave insights on crisis communication and human behaviour.

Chronology of events
At around 4.30pm, I received (via WhatsApp) a screenshot of a Facebook group called PINOY LAH which claimed that the ceiling of the Cathedral of St John the Evangelist had collapsed. The screenshot had photos of the incident. The sender asked me whether the news was true, considering that I am a parishioner there. When I saw the screenshot, I thought it must be fake news because there were no alerts in the chat groups of the Parish Pastoral Council, BECCOT and Laudato Si’ Ministry that I am in. Since it was already time to knock off work, I decided to walk to the Cathedral to check it out myself.

As I was walking there, two friends from neighbouring parishes rang me to ask whether the ceiling had indeed collapsed. They too had received the news via WhatsApp. Both of them had attended the 1.00pm Mass at the Cathedral. Therefore, they were in a daze thinking that they had escaped death.

When I arrived at the Cathedral around 5.20pm, all its doors were closed. I flipped open one of the windows and peered in.

There was a gaping hole in the ceiling above the Divine Mercy wing. Debris had fallen all over the sanctuary. So, the news was true – the ceiling had indeed collapsed.

When I entered the Cathedral through the sacristy, I saw parish priest Fr Gerard Theraviam inspecting the damages with a few other guys. After about 10 minutes, they told me to leave because they were going to inspect the ceiling and it would be dangerous for me to be there. As I left the Cathedral, I mentioned to seminarian Bro Selva who was based at the Cathedral, on the need for a communications plan to inform people quickly and accurately of what had happened. Otherwise, there would be speculation, rumours and untruths.

Muddled communication
At 6.18pm, a message dropped into the Parish Pastoral Council chat group urging parishioners to quickly gather at the Cathedral to clean the debris. The message read, “Everyone, we need manpower to help clean the debris. Appreciate if you can reach out to friends or anyone to go over to church to help.” I thought that was strange because to begin with, there was no official statement from the parish to confirm that the ceiling had collapsed. Why suddenly were they asking parishioners to clean the debris? And how did the person who sent the message verify that the ceiling had indeed collapsed? Was she present when the incident happened? So many questions that nobody had answers to.

It was only at 6:58pm that Fr Gerard began posting in the chat groups and social media to inform that the ceiling had collapsed. His message confirmed that “the affected area was infested by termites.” This was probably to quell speculation that the ceiling had collapsed due to the weight of the High Volume Low Speed (HVLS) fans that had been installed on the ceiling about a year ago. The message also informed that, upon advice from an engineer who had inspected the roof together with several others, the Divine Mercy wing would be closed. Later on, I learned from Fr Gerard that he was out running an errand when the incident happened, and had rushed back to the Cathedral to inspect the damages before making an official statement.

Quick and accurate communication
Quick and accurate communication is vital in a crisis. In the case of the ceiling collapse, there was no need to wait for the engineer to inspect the roof and provide advice. Instead, a holding statement to confirm that the incident happened should have been quickly prepared. The statement should have been short but contained essential information. Here is an example: “At around 2.30pm today, a part of the ceiling at the Cathedral of St John the Evangelist collapsed. Thankfully, no one was injured in the incident. However, the altar area was damaged and a few pews destroyed. We are currently investigating the incident and will provide more updates soon.”

The objective of the holding statement is to confirm that the incident had happened and to buy time whilst a thorough inspection is conducted. Therefore, it should have been sent out as soon as possible. Let’s take a look at Malaysia Airlines’ infamous flight MH370 that went missing on March 8, 2014 whilst on route between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing. When the plane didn’t land in Beijing at 6.30am, in less than an hour, at 7.24am, Malaysian Airlines had already announced on its Facebook page that the plane was missing. That is how fast communication needs to work in a crisis.

In a crisis, it is important to quell speculation and rumours immediately. Otherwise, it could lead to untruths and finger pointing. This leads to my second point about human behaviour.

Outside information
When I exchanged notes with my fellow parishioners, many of them said that they first heard about the collapsed ceiling from people in other parishes. Some of these ‘informers’ even came from other states and countries. The irony of it was that St John’s parishioners had to hear about the incident from outsiders (once again, the importance of quickly issuing a holding statement is highlighted). This goes to show that many people want to be the first to break the news, regardless whether it is authentic or not. Perhaps they feel thrilled that they are the first to do so.

The act of sending unverified messages may have been happening since the emergence of instant messaging. I remember similar incidents where people had jumped the gun and sent or forwarded messages that certain members of the clergy (who were unwell and near death), had passed away, when actually, they were still very much alive! People who send such messages don’t realise the consequences of their action.

The collapse of the ceiling has highlighted the importance of communication in a crisis. The March 5 issue of HERALD has an article, “Dear Father, are you prepared for a crisis?” Read it for pointers on how parishes may prepare for a crisis.

Now that a month has passed since the incident, Fr Gerard has provided regular updates about repairs and funding in the bulletin and social media. I hope this flow of communication and transparency continues. Once the ceiling is repaired and we move back into the Cathedral for Masses, I suppose we won’t be taking our beloved Cathedral for granted anymore.

(Julie Lim Seet Yin believes that a satisfied life measured by one’s heart, mind and soul is better than a successful life measured by worldly yardsticks. She works for a Japanese bank and is responsible for its Public Relations and Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives. She can be reached at: limseetyin@gmail. com)

Total Comments:0