In the techno-savvy 21st century where the latest breaking news is just a 140-character tweet away and where even radio has been relegated to a back-row seat, it’s now more important than ever for corporations, organizations and lobby groups to tightly control and monitor their media relations.
While maintaining good relations with the vernacular media is a necessity that goes without saying, good relations with the international media is (should) have been almost as important.
For the past 18-days the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), aka the “red-shirts”, have been holding a mass rally on Phan Fa Bridge in central Bangkok in its latest – possibly a do or die – attempt to force Thailand Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to dissolve the Thai parliament and call fresh elections.
After all, while foreign powers have their embassies and their intelligence staff to feed news back along official channels, Thais living abroad, tourists planning their holidays, academics, and those with an interest in either Southeast Asia studies or international democracy movements, all prefer to gain their information from more than just one source.
For all these very reasons, maintaining at least cordial media relations, even with media who do not agree or support the red-shirts protest, was a vital role that in the case of the UDD, was relegated to someone without the necessary skills, vision or technological knowledge to perform the task.
For the vernacular media the working conditions couldn’t have been more draconian if someone had deliberately planned them that way, with what became the local media staging area originally pencilled in as being for the international media too.
Crammed hip and shoulder on plastic garden chairs against a series of fold-up tables with a hastily rigged tarpaulin providing the only relief from the scorching 40C (104F) heat and just three meters (about 10ft) from a bank of industrial size diesel powered (non-silenced) generators, the Thai media gallantly put in their eight hours before heading home for a well deserved head massage and paracetamol cocktail.
Refusing to join their colleagues in their gulag-like “press area”, the international media for the first couple of days thronged around the officials area, begging, pleading and just plain seizing on the only three-slot power receptacle available.
As foreign media sweltered (melted) in the sultry tropical Bangkok heat, across the river some 100 meters from the main stage, the UDDs so-called International Media Center, a hastily commandeered air-conditioned marquee measuring some 30m x 8m (98 x 26ft) was home to the international media director and a bevy of eager volunteers charged with disseminating the news worldwide.
While the micro-blogging platform Twitter has relegated even respected newswires such as AFP, Reuters and AP to a similar position as radio, it’s 140-character limit is at best a source for news flashes or alerts, some of which need to be viewed dubiously depending on who the source is.
What foreign journalists covering an event as significant as this (toppling, or attempting to topple a government is pretty significant) require, especially when working in a country such as Thailand that has a language that is difficult for foreigners to master and has centuries of unique traditions and cultures, is a person capable of bridging the culture and language divide and explaining things in terms foreigners can understand.
They also, as a minimum, need: access to core organization leaders; transcripts, or at least bullet points, of media conferences; instant attributable comments; translators to transliterate press conferences on the fly and assist foreign media in posing their questions; daily media event timetables; and regularly updated media briefings, facts and figures.
Other niceties that assist the foreign media in completing their goals – especially for an event as large as this – are: pool photos of organization leaders and events (preferably available online); a reasonably quiet, secure work area not to far from the main scene of action but with a video feed of what is happening outside; 24/7 access to a bi-lingual member of the media relations team; Wi-Fi or cable internet access; lots of power outlets; and a supply of cold water (Bangkok is bloody hot in March and April) and coffee.
Did the UDD international media manager and his team of earnest, hardworking volunteers address these needs, or even provide the basic essentials? No.
Rather than an online news portal, blog or website with constantly updated reports, facts, information and pool photos, the UDD, or at least its international media director, focused their entire efforts on Facebook.
While Facebook and it’s 400 million claimed world-wide active users might be the biggest social networking site on the planet, even the company’s founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg would probably be surprised – and no-doubt flattered – to learn of it being used as the only place media announcements for a breaking news event were being posted.
When Air France Flight AF447 tragically disappeared from the radar screen on June 1 last year, the airline didn’t tell the world media to follow updates on a Facebook page. When wild-fires ripped through California late last year, did the US Forest Service and state or federal agencies tell the media to sign up to Facebook for updates? No again.
As a social networking platform for engaging with existing friends, expanding your network of social contacts, or even communicating with fans of a product or common interest, there is little doubt that Facebook is second only to Twitter, but with many additional features.
As a vehicle for distributing timely news information to jaded world journalists who see a mob of red-shirted protesters attempting to topple a foreign government, bellowing, shouting and gesticulating in a language they don’t understand it is, in classic Twitter parlance, a massive Fail Whale.
In my 20-plus years of international journalism, I can honestly say that I have never walked into a media room for any event, whether it be the tightly run media ship of the Australasian Lawn Tennis Association’s (now Tennis Australia) Australian Open under Tony Peak in the 80s, a GetUp protest rally, or even an NGO media briefing in the middle of Africa, where the appointed media handlers haven’t been shoving reams of printed facts, figures, statistics, pool photos and one-line comments into my hands and ears to the point of sometimes being annoying.
With such a massive task on its hands, along with a foreign media that largely (incorrectly in this writers opinion) see’s the group as little more than the rural cannon fodder of ousted Thailand prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s attempts to return to Thailand, regain his seized assets and reclaim the seat of power, the role of media management and bridging the previously mentioned cultural and language gap was probably more important than what any of the main-stage speakers had to say on most days.
Having worked in crisis and issues management in Australia and Southeast Asia, along with having owned and managed my own public relations consultancy for 10-years, the three things that a media manager or public relations person needs is credibility; a commitment to the client or cause; and accessibility.
A media manager and his team arriving on-site in the afternoon, missing the morning press briefing that no one was ever informed was a regular occurrence or having a translator/transcriber at, is hardly conducive to getting the organizations message across.
Promising trucks for videographers and photographers for the organizations mammoth 60-km long convoy around Bangkok and not being in attendance when the the convoy started, and then turning up with a couple of mini-buses and bailing out after 40-minutes because “it’s too hot”, is not conducive to getting that precious 30-seconds of international nightly TV news spot.
Having a stand-up public argument and threatening to punch a member of the international media and then ordering him off the site and telling him he’s no longer welcome at the rally when he complained over lack of organizational skills is hardly stellar media relations.
When the red-shirts’ rivals, the Peoples Alliance for Democracy, aka the “yellow-shirts” smeared bloodied sanitary napkins over a statue of King Rama V in the grounds of Government House, the groups core leader, Sondhi Limthongkul, explained this was to counter attempts to sabotage the power of the statue to protect the nation – harnessing the perceived negative cosmic force of female blood to counteract, or undo, the allegedly evil acts of others.
When core UDD leaders called on their followers to donate 10ml (about 3.4oz) each of blood to be splashed at the gates of parliament house, the doors of the ruling Democrat Party headquarters and the home of Prime Minister Abhisit, the UDDs frontline explanation man said, “I’m not even going to try and defend it”.
“It might not even go ahead. There’s a very heated discussion going on between the core leaders now. Some strongly disagree with it. But that’s what democracy is all about.”
While a core precept of democracy may very well be about open discussion and freedom of speech, white-anting the leadership after they’ve publicly made an announcement of an event certainly knocks the “united” out of the UDDs name.
When the bureau chief of a major news-wire describes the international media manager as “he’s totally useless” and a photographer for a major international photo-news agency says “I’d rather be photographing wildflowers than try to deal with …”, there is something seriously wrong.
The relationship between a media manager or public relations person has always been one of a love-hate relationship, and rightly so. One is attempting (in theory) to gain the best coverage and most exposure for their client and the other is attempting to delve for the truth and those things that the other side might not necessarily want written about.
While one is attempting to gain something his or her peers has not discovered, the other, once again in theory, is supposed to be feeding bits of information and opportunities to those he or she feels will provide whoever he or she is representing with the most favorable and expansive coverage.
While young fire-brand leaders such as Jatuporn Prompan, Natthawut Saikua, Arisaman Pongruengrong, and Suporn Atthawong, alias Rambo Isaan, might be able to inspire their followers to crawl over a bed of broken glass, leap through hoops of fire, and overcome their fear of needles for the cause, it does little good if no one is watching – or understands the reasons why.
One of the core aims of the UDD is to rid Thailand of nepotism and cronyism. However, when people are appointed to such a senior role as managing the local or international media simply based on their connection and networks of acquaintances to the point of alienating the very people they should be courting, one can’t help but wonder what agenda the UDD really has.
For any media manager to publicly state: “Pravit Rojanapreuk of the NATION (sic) asked me the difference on how the Thai media and the international media cover the Red Rally! I gave him an earful explanation of why Thai media are so unfair to us, only the real information about the Reds are found in the international media!”
Desperate Facebook posts by the same person, such as: “Where are CNN, BBC coverages? You can not do news from the office! :-)”, only highlight how failed the media relations have become.
This is highlighted more by allowing responses to short-time announced media conferences posted only on Facebook by journalists such as, “some more advance information wouldn’t be bad …”
Leaving comments from so-called fans that attack and insult the groups core leaders such as: “Veera should be fired and leave Weng and Jatuporn at the table. Hope he doesn’t budge in again”; “Damn Veera…Damn……”; “Oh Veera, shut the hell up…..”; and “now lets fire Veera” only show how out of control the overall communications have become.
For a member of the very same international media team to publicly post comments alleging a member of the international media is a convicted sex offender and unable to return to his native country because he is wanted by the police there, exposing not just the individual but the entire organisation to a massive civil defamation lawsuit and criminal prosecution, and who also claims that the same member of the international media shouldn’t be in the international media tent because “he doesn’t work for the UDD”, shows how off-the rails the media management has become.
Sadly, while the purity of motive of the majority of the red-shirt supporters who gather at the rally site each day and night, and heed the calls for added attendance when threats of a military crackdown have been feared, one can’t help to question what motive the person charged with courting and feting the media has when his total team of more than 10 people spend their entire time updating Facebook.
© 2010 John Le Fevre
Sondhi Limthongkul • Jatuporn Prompan • Natthawut Saikua • Arisaman Pongruengrong • Suporn Atthawong • Rambo Isaan • media relations • UDD • United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship • international media • Phan Fa Bridge • Thaksin Shinawatra • Sean Boonpracong • Myra Sangawong
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