Archive for the 'Thailand' Category

Brave new world full of opinions – editorial from Bangkok’s The Nation

bridge.jpgI am really interested in how the advent of new media–or more precisely perhaps, social media as a more accurate referent to the evolution of new media whose early emphasis was on technology–is impacting traditional media’s historical role as the gatekeeper of information.  Indeed, if social media continues to take off, the public relations industry risks being obsolete if it does not adapt and realize that we need to go beyond issuing the standard press releases and refuse to extend our stakeholder relations program beyond key editors and journalists of traditional media and corporate analyst types, to citizen journalists and opinion leaders.

Indeed, traditional media is already wide awake to the ongoing redefinition of its role, caught in the crosscurrents of a public increasingly angling for a greater role in shaping the news and information that they consume.  I thought that Bangkok’s The Nation wrote a rather searching editorial in its May 3 edition on this issue. 

“The media as we know it is coming to an end,” it declared. 

“Bloggers, citizen reporters or simply general users have been contributing to media content in ever-increasing quantity and quality. The information flow has for some time ceased to be one-way, and it’s only a matter of time before what initially was called ‘feedback’ matches or overtakes the ‘output’ in terms of reliability and credibility,” the op-ed continued.

Of course, this editorial (click here for the full op-ed or here for print-ready text) comes at a rather urgent moment in Thailand’s history, where press freedom has been even more curtailed under the military junta (in a recent report by New York-based Freedom House, Thailand’s press freedom ranking slipped to 127 out of 194 countries from its placement at 29 in 2000 and 107 in 2006).  See report by The Nation here.  Yet, the military government is starting to see that despite media control, its citizens are able to continue expressing their opinions in various online platforms, which presents a much greater regulatory challenge than traditional media. 

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Thailand receives reputation boost on health front

Clinton and Thai Health Minister (picture credit: Bangkok Post)I know that my past two posts on Thailand expressed serious concerns regarding the country’s reputation both in the region and around the world.  Its desultory progress toward restoring democracy and the retrogressive tactic to ban YouTube did it no favor.  However, there is one area where I think the country is bold and progressive, and that is its decision to break the patents of some prohibitively expensive HIV medications so that its HIV-positive citizens can have affordable access to medications that could save their lives.  Earlier this year, Thailand issued licenses for affordable generic versions of Abbott’s Kaletra for HIV (while Brazildid likewise with Merck’s Efavirenz).

In response, the U.S. pharmaceutical industry galvanized against Thailand, engaging lobbyist groups such as USA for Innovation to put pressure on the American government to take punitive measures against Bangkok.  In late-March,  the U.S. Office of Trade Representative in Washington downgraded the country to the Priority Watch List for its IP trangressions, according to Bangkok’s The Nation.

Thailand’s case received a significant boost yesterday when former U.S. President Bill Clinton standing side-by-side Thailand’s Public Health Minister Mongkol Na Songkhla, gave his backing to both countries’ decision to break the patents.  Unequivocal, Clinton averred, “I strongly support the position of the governments of Thailand and Brazil and their decision after futile negotiations to break these patents.”  See a Bangkok Post report here and a Reuters story here.

Thailand right now suffers a credibility issue.  In areas where the government is doing the right and just things, I think this is just what it needs to do in terms of public relations to get the message out, i.e. locate and nurture well-respected leaders to lend their weight to the given cause or issue.

Another point here…yes, the pharmaceutical giants may have the budget to retain public relations titans and sophisticated lobbying interests to push their causes, but on the ground, there is a grassroots movement to protest what is seen as naked avarice on the part of some of these drug companies.  In April, a group of students from Harvard University staged a protest outside Abbott’s facility in Wocester against its decision not to allow Thailand to produce generics of Kaletra and its pulling out of other vital AIDS medications from the Thai market.  After speeches were made, the students staged a “die-in,” where the “denied prescription” was carried past the protestors, who then fell to the groundin mock death.  Similar protests took place in Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C., Austin, and other key American cities.  Read an article from The Harvard Crimson here.

Oh, and on the YouTube ban, well, here’s the latest…Google has blinked, apparently.  The Bangkok Post has reported that the company has written to Thailand’s information minister pledging to remove all “anti-monarchy” video clips from its video-sharing subsidiary.  Read the Bangkok Post story here.

More reputational turbulence ahead for Thailand?

A view of the Bangkok skylineAs expected, the Thai government continues to ratchet up its rhetoric. On May 7, the military-backed government announced that it plans to sue YouTube for allowing clips it deems to infringe its lese majeste law. In fact, I was just in Bangkok over the weekend when a friend sent me a YouTube link to a music video. Unthinkingly, I clicked on the link, only to be informed via a pop-up that the site has been blocked. Meanwhile, the website was kindly directed to what appeared to be the information ministry’s portal. Even if there were domestic Thais who wanted to access YouTube for innocuous purposes (or to post opposing video clips that supported their king), they couldn’t. Such a blunt tool suggests either a lack of PR savvy or perhaps a total disregard. See here for an AFP report.

Meanwhile, on Saturday evening, a small bomb exploded in a telephone booth near the Chitrala Palace in Bangkok. The palace is largely ceremonial now, with the King having moved to the seaside resort town of Hua Hin many years ago and his family spread out over several residences around Bangkok. There are skeptics who say that the military may in fact “allow” (or even engineer?) periodic disorder or instability to justify its continued hold on the government. In an earlier Bangkok bombing that took place on New Year’s Eve (for which until now no arrests have been made), the police incredulously suggested that Thaksin or his proxies were the masterminds, which damaged its credibility. See here for a Reuters report.

Finally, even as the military junta announced that it would put an American PR agency on a 3-month remit to burnish its tainted image, deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra said that he would end his relationship with Edelman to quell talk that the agency had orchestrated negative publicity against Thailand at his behest. See here for an article by Bangkok’s The Nation.

What will all these mean for Thailand? What, if anything, can a purportedly 3-month PR campaign do to salvage the reputation of a country so deeply mired in trouble that seems so much more fundamental than a case of a bad PR? Check out Michael Netzley’s thoughts if he were to be handed that brief.

Thailand hires PR company to bolster public image

Bangkok traffic outside the MBK CenterThe Thai junta announced on May 1 that it will appoint a U.S. PR firm for what it calls a “nation branding” campaign. The account was cited by Thai PM Surayud Chulanot to be worth US$600,000 over a three-month period. His Foreign Ministry appeared to contradict him when a spokesperson said that Thailand would spend only US$165,000.

The latest move was suggested by a Reuters report to be partly in response to USA for Innovation‘s recent ad in WSJ attacking the Thai government for violating the patents of American drugs sold in Thailand. USA for Innovation is a lobbyist group supportive of the American pharmaceutical industry. It is headed by Ken Adelman, who is also a senior counselor at Edelman PR. Setting up “not-for-profit” lobby groups to adovcate certain causes on behalf of powerful clients can be a sophisticated and effective tactic, but it can go awfully wrong if these seeming grassroots groups turn out to be disingenuous. Déjà vu? Recall the Edelman Wal-Marting Across Americascandal.

For what it’s worth, the Thai government’s move appear to be a recognition that it is loosing the credibility war and that two key battlefronts are reputation and issues management. America is a longstanding ally of Thailand, and the Thai military junta’s sagging reputation needs to be reversed in order for the American government to continue to justify its tacit support. It didn’t help when the Thai government in April banned YouTube for allowing video clips that supposedly infringed its lese majeste law, and shut down another websitepantip.com, a popular local online chatroom–on similar grounds.

Will this move make a difference? To some extent, it is a question of execution, although 3 months is unlikely to be enough. The Thai junta surely understands this but for public positioning has stated 3 months as a start. But one suspects that there is a more fundamental problem here than a case of a misunderstood government. And that is something PR cannot fix.


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