How to fail at media relations - Thailand's red-shirts show how
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.
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.
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 – an 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.
Story continues at: Media Wars – how to fail at international media relations the UDD way