Does Thailand’s failure to communicate mask a bigger problem?

Does Thailand’s failure to communicate mask a bigger problem?
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Last week Thailand deputy prime minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, General Tanasak Patimapragorn, failed to join his counterparts from Indonesia and Malaysia at the conclusion of a mini summit in Kuala Lumpur to discuss the plight of thousands of Rohingya and Bengalis believed to be afloat on the Indian Ocean.

This is the most serious foreign relations faux pas seen in the region for sometime, exceeding even the failure of the 13th Asean Foreign Ministers’ Plus three Meeting in Phnom Penh in 2012, which for the first time in its 45 year history saw Asean fail to issue a joint communiqué.

At best it serves to highlight the strict hierarchical, top-down management style of Thailand coup leader and Prime Minister, General Prayut Chan-o-cha. At worst it highlights a more serious problem.

Mood of neighbours for urgency missed

After seizing the international spotlight on May 12 with its call for a Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean (SMIMIO) in Bangkok with the claim “the situation demands an immediate response”, Thailand failed to accurately read the mood of its neighbours. There was also a lack of synergy on what “immediate response” meant, even though both Indonesia and Malaysia had initially joined the Thai initiated “pushback club”.

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All smiles at the beginning; Foreign Ministers (L-R) Retno Marsudi (Indonesia), General Tanasak Patimapragorn (Thailand), Anifah Aman (Malaysia)
All smiles at the beginning; Foreign Ministers (L-R) Retno Marsudi (Indonesia), General Tanasak Patimapragorn (Thailand), Anifah Aman (Malaysia)

It was unrealistic to assume that the two nations in the region with Muslim majority populations would resolutely stand firm in rejecting fellow Muslims in distress, providing fodder for home-grown criticism for too long.

This is especially so in the wake of the Philippines announcing last Tuesday that it would provide sanctuary and assistance to Rohingya and Bengali refugees, despite having also initially joined the ”push-back club”.

Thailand’s insistence on waiting until its planned May 29 gabfest failed to take into account the extensive global and regional media coverage the pushbacks were generating; let alone the sentiment of communities most affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, regular poundings by tropical typhoons. Similarly the gratitude of a nation which received widespread international assistance and sympathy last year searching for two missing aircraft was also underestimated.

The resolve of Indonesia and Malaysia’s foreign ministers, Retno Marsudi and Anifah Aman, to treat the words “immediate response” literally and announce immediate action, along with the vacant lectern with the drooping flag of Thailand behind it following General Patimapragorn’s rapid departure from Kuala Lumpur, caught the public relations folks at Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) on the hop too.

It was not until 7.00pm that a press release was issued on the the meeting in Kuala Lumpur earlier in the day.

Thailand MFA foreign media group on Line

Thai media sit on their haunches as Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha holds a media conference at Thailand Government House
Thai media sit on their haunches as Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha holds a media conference at Thailand Government House

That the MFA “presser” did little except restate previous “motherhood” claims about being committed to a regional solution; strengthening cooperation; and solving the problem of irregular migration in the region at the forthcoming May 29 gathering, only highlights the shortage of material the MFA PR team had to work with.

That is not meant to criticise MFAs public relations team. There has been a dramatic improvement by MFA of late in attempting to engage with foreign correspondents in Thailand. The most recent innovation being the creation of a MoA Foreign Media group on the Line social media platform where accredited foreign media can post questions and receive replies in English language.

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Staff maintaining the Line account have so far been diligent in responding to queries and posting information and answers – when they have them.

In addition to proving to be a useful resource, the Line group has also highlighted the lack of coordination of past Thailand government communications efforts.

Government-media relations strained

Since seizing power one year ago government relations (most personified by military strongman General Chan-o-cha) with the media have been somewhat dysfunctional. Thai media are forced to crouch on the ground before the prime minister, squatting on their haunches and sweating in temperatures that soar over 50C in the sun, while he addresses them from shaded, often elevated locations.

Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha scratches the ear of a Thai journalist squatting before him while conducting a media briefing.
Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha scratches the ear of a Thai journalist squatting before him while conducting a media briefing. Click here to see the original video by Wassana Nanuam

The frustrations of General Chan-o-cha with the Thai media for either not understanding government policy and directions or failure to write with what he terms “accuracy” about it has, on more than one occasion, made international headlines.

While the Prime Minister’s response to being aggressively questioned by one Thai journalist was to respond with a reminder that he still had power to order firing squads, before walking away was widely interrupted as a serious press freedom threat, others say it merely reflected the General’s barracks humour.

However patting a journalist’s head, rubbing his ear and throwing a banana peel at a cameraman is harder to read as an act of paternal affection as claimed by some.

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If individual government department communications with the foreign media were poor prior to the coup, in the wake of it they got even worse.

Chairman of the board

Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha – not amused that poor public relations backup means the government's achievements aren't better known
Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha – not amused that poor public relations backup means the government’s achievements aren’t better known

Reliable, informative, or talkative sources that were previously happy to promote what they were doing before the coup, were suddenly transferred, retired, or otherwise not willing to discuss anything more than what they had consumed for lunch without the written authorisation of “the Chairman of the board”.

While some organisations such as the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) and the Thailand Board of Investment (BoT), along with a few others, still managed to churn out good quality English language media material, these were the exceptions.

While General Chan-o-cha jet to regional and international meetings outlining his plans for the future (according to local media reports), some ministry and departmental communications departments went from responding slowly to foreign media requests, to just not responding – and some still are.

5,000 foreign media

According to the Thailand Government Public Relations Department (PRD) which issues government press cards there are more than 5,000 foreign journalists in Thailand. These are the official accredited journalists, photographers, bloggers, and videographers who have presented valid accreditation applications, been verified and found to work for legitimate media; the front line for the government to communicate it’s direction to for wider consumption.

According to some calculations the 2014 Thailand coup and the street protests by the Peoples Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) stripped between US$8.520 and US$12.781 billion from the 2014 Thailand GDP.

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To minimise fallout and protect the economy a good communications team able to explain the master plan in detail and an executive able to implement it are necessary. In the commercial world it is referred to as crisis and issues management.

Seizing control of an entire country and its entire nation at gunpoint is not indifferent to a hostile corporate raider. Both are generally not welcome and both need outstanding (expensive) communications to minimise the negative ramifications amongst their various audiences – staff, consumers, stock holders, suppliers, subcontractors, etc. A time when the propaganda mill spins like a windmill generating a veritable tsunami of positive-spin “news” stories “beneficial to your readers” with a focus changing from one issue to another ona  daily basis.

Returning happiness to the the people

Military trucks with speakers travelled around Bangkok & provincial streets broadcasting the governments six month achievements
Military trucks with speakers travelled around Bangkok & provincial streets broadcasting the governments six month achievements

General Chan-o-cha’s weekly Returning Happiness to the People programme broadcast nationwide on television each Friday has been much lampooned.

However, it has given the government an uninterrupted, uncensored communication channel to detail its policies, plans and ambitions, straight from the “Chairman’s” mouth.

With English-language subtitles (as well as on-the-fly Modern Standard Thai Sign Language (MSTSL) translation), the weekly broadcast has become compelling viewing for some – media, foreign investors, expatriates, and diplomatic staff in particular, not the least reason being the speed with which the Prime Minister bounces from topic to topic.

It matters little that scant details are provided. That’s what an army of government communications staff and departmental communications officers are for, right?

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And if minimising damage is the goal as outlined above, engaging with the widest range of influencers as possible using a wide range of communications channels is also the name of the game, right? Bravo Thailand’s MFA!

However, something was lost in translation when the prime minister addressed the nation with the achievements of his “government” in 11 areas in the six months since the hand-picked National Legislative Assembly (NLA) commenced work.

This was a major event. Yet there were no English-language subtitles, nor MSTSL, despite the the “Chairman” being followed by his A-list of Cabinet members outlining their achievements.

Particularly absent was any English-language document saying: Here, foreign media, this is what we’ve done in the past six months (It hasn’t all been crackdowns on dissent, censorship, and increasing reduction in personal freedoms that you guys think). We’ve done this, this, and this. For those attending the event real-time audio translation was provided though.

Overall a bit of a fail in getting the message outside of the country.

No doubt the army vehicles with external speakers that slowly crawled around some Bangkok and provincial locations broadcasting the “Chairman’s” appraisal were judged to be an outstanding success.

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The government has done a lot. Don’t they see it?

To address what it termed “negative press” and “poor coverage” of it’s polices – and after General Chan-o-cha said that he had almost punched a journalist who asked him what progress had been made since the Thai military had seized power – it was announced the government would publish its own newspaper listing its achievements.

“The government has done a lot so far. Don’t they see it?”, General Chan-o-cha rhetorically asked attendees at a seminar in Bangkok he was speaking at.

Thailand Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha - “There's no problem. I can clarify everything. I have been doing this on behalf [of spokespersons] every day anyhow.”
Thailand Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha – “There’s no problem. I can clarify everything. I have been doing this on behalf [of spokespersons] every day anyhow.”

However, with a print run of 60,000 copies for a population of about 66 million, the pass-on readership rate will need to be very high if this is going to be any more effective than past efforts.

Less than one week later it was publicly announced Premier not happy with govt PR teams.

According to reports the Prime Minister believed that many people in the provinces, and even in Bangkok, had not heard about the government’s achievements.

A “brainstorming” session by Thailand government PR people concluded that the poor PR results were largely due to funds for advertising on billboards being slashed.

Less than a month later government spokesman Yongyuth Mayalarp resigned due to ill health.

PM says better than PRs at explaining projects

In much the same way as someone saying they have a dog, but they bark at intruders while the animal naps, the prime minister told local media there had been a problem explaining the government’s achievements. “There’s no problem. I can clarify everything. I have been doing this on behalf [of spokespersons] every day anyhow.”

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This is no exaggeration in more ways than one. Since seizing power one year ago the 61-year-old has maintained a hectic schedule of public appearances. He often speaks at four, five or more events in one day, as well as attends more than a few meetings and briefings daily.

For drive, determination, and dedication it would be difficult to award less than an 8/10 score. This is similar to scores contained in two recent polls in the run-up to the one year anniversary of the abrogation of democracy.

One poll by the National Institute of Development and Administration (NIDA) of 1,250 people found that about 49 per cent of respondents said their lives were happier since the formation of the NCPO – though the economic slowdown, higher cost of living, and the lack of concrete achievements were concerns.

A second, by Rajabhat Suan Dusit University’s Suan Dusit Poll, found 50.97 per cent of those surveyed “rather satisfied” and another 33.06 per cent “very satisfied”.

Thai & foreign media register and provide their contact information to the Thai military junta in the wake of the 2014 coup
Thai & foreign media register and provide their contact information to the Thai military junta in the wake of the 2014 coup

For clearly communicating its policy or achievements globally a 4/10 score would be generous.

Why those responsible for filling in the detail cannot keep up with the retired General in communicating his policies is a mystery.

With just seven months before the Asean Economic Community (AEC), which has English as its official working and business language, Thailand’s inability to provide good English language material to keep journalists informed, so that they in turn can keep the rest of Asean and the world informed, is a sad indictment of AEC preparedness.

Dial junta for journalists

After-all, one of the first things General Chan-o-cha’s 2014 military intervention did was order all foreign and Thai journalists in Bangkok to report to The Army Club in Phaya Thai and provide their contact details and pose for a photo taken by a soldier.

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Surely all any Thai government department wanting to promote their work and policies needs do is phone their local junta representative and ask for the list.

Alternatively, they could obtain the same information from the MFA who accredits foreign media, or the government PRD, who issues the government’s media cards.

If not to ensure that the plans and successes of the junta and the NLA that eventuated were adequately communicated both nationally and internationally, what was the the purpose of the call-up and registration?

Rather than threatening the media with a firing squad for asking seemingly ill informed questions, the “Chairman of the board” should ask why we aren’t informed.

That any military commander would standby watching firebase after firebase obliterated on a battlefield map in the same way that policy after policy has failed to gain attention without asking whether the commanders were being briefed and receiving their orders on their role defies belief.

The alternative is more worrying though. Could it simply be that Thailand government PR departments have gone mute because the policy and details are still in development? Is the “emperor” really naked?  Such would explain General Patimapragorn’s rapid departure from Kuala Lumpur last week.

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No doubt the country’s position on SMIMIO will be defined before the May 29 conference begins. Though from the way the government is communicating at the moment, whoever is presented with it will likely need to be careful he or she doesn’t smudge the ink on the way to the meeting.

 

 

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John Le Fevre is an Australian national with more than 40 years experience as a journalist, photographer, videographer and editor.

He has spent extensive periods of time working in Africa and throughout Southeast Asia, with stints in the Middle East, the USA, and England.

He has covered major world events including Operation Desert Shield/ Storm, the 1991 pillage in Zaire, the 1994 Rwanda genocide, the 1999 East Timor independence unrest, the 2004 Asian tsunami, and the 2009, 2010, and 2014 Bangkok political protests.

In 1995 he was a Walkley Award finalist, the highest awards in Australian journalism, for his coverage of the 1995 Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) Ebola outbreak.

Most recently he was the Thailand editor/ managing editor of AEC News Today . Prior to that he was the deputy editor and Thailand and Greater Mekong Sub-region editor for The Establishment Post, predecessor of Asean Today.

In the mid-80s and early 90s he owned JLF Promotions, the largest above and below the line marketing and PR firm servicing the high-technology industry in Australia. It was sold in 1995.

Opinions and views expressed on this site are those of the author’s only. Read more at About me

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