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22 Nov, 2011

Media Coverage of the Thai Floods: Here We Go Again

Imtiaz Muqbil & Don Ross

It did not take long for the floods in Thailand to reignite the déjà vu debate over media reporting of the crisis. While the raging waters have washed out a huge swathe of territory across Bangkok and a number of Thailand’s economically vital central provinces, the rest of the country, including the key tourism centres in both North and South Thailand has been totally flood-free. It has been claimed that by not reporting this in equal measure, the media has contributed to the decline in tourism.

The new PATA CEO Mr Martin Craigs went to bat for the Thai tourism industry, giving a number of interviews at the World Travel Market in London castigating media coverage of the floods. By contrast, Thai tourism leaders have been far more circumspect, blaming both themselves as well as the Thai government for a confused and uncoordinated response that only worsened the crisis.

In both cases, the blame-game has been an exercise in futility, thanks to a number of factors. First, the scale, severity, size and speed of the unfolding crisis was unprecedented. The torrential rains forced a furious water runoff, which neither the drainage systems nor the canals could cope with. Second, the Thai government, fresh from a new round of political elections and headed by a neophyte prime minister, took much too long to respond. Third, as many companies, neighbourhoods, housing estates, military areas, etc., sought to sandbag themselves, turf wars broke out between the city government and the central government. Numerous experts weighed in with their own assessments of the problem. As the bunfights raged, the waters rose and large parts of Thailand sank.

All of this was robustly tracked in both local and international media. Although no-one was sure which way the waters were heading, there was no arguing about the floods that swamped Bangkok’s second airport at Don Muaeng, which only handles low-cost domestic airlines, charters, cargo, private planes and the Air Force. Thai Airways International had some of its decommissioned planes parked at Don Mueang. Pictures of the floodwaters nearly as high as the underbelly of one aircraft spread worldwide, alongside the headline “Bangkok airport closed.” Factually, that was correct. In terms of perception, however, those who did not know that Bangkok has two airports, and that the main Suvarnabhumi international airport was unaffected all through the crisis, thought that as “Bangkok airport” was closed, there was no point in going. Visitor arrivals slumped.

Kneejerk Reaction

As always, the kneejerk reaction is to first try and shoot the messenger. For many veteran observers of Thai tourism, this was déjà vu. Confrontations between the Thai tourism industry and the local/foreign media are nothing new. Thailand has been hit by dozens of crises over numerous decades. These include everything from health crises like SARS and AIDS to regular military coups, the Dec 2004 tsunami, the 1997 economic crisis, and the 2009-10 tit-for-tat political action and reaction by the yellow-shirts and red-shirts. In addition, Thailand gets plenty of stick over its sex-and-smut image, especially the scourge of prostitution and child-sex.

However, the fact that tourism continues to boom is a clear indicator that the positive publicity about all the good things of the Thai tourism sector outweighs the negative. The country has a much better image and brand-recognition profile than its neighbours. Its democratic traditions and free media as well as the presence in Bangkok of one of the largest foreign press corps in Asia plays a major role. Although things are far from perfect, there is a healthy and robust discussion of all issues, warts and all, in the media as well as in other institutions of the Thai democratic apparatus.

In an interview, Mr Marwaan Macan-Markar, the Thailand bureau chief of Inter-Press Service (IPS) and a former President of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, said the crisis had been fairly reported. By strict definition, the media’s job is to report what is unusual and newsworthy, he said. It has done that. Indeed, the foreign media coverage has pretty much followed that by the local media, especially the Bangkok Post and the Nation, the two English-language newspapers that have been full of the “negative” side of the story, especially the chaotic response and relief measures. “Are they (tourism executives) criticising these papers, too?” he asked.

As for providing “balanced” coverage about the all-clear areas, Mr Marwaan wanted to know how does one define an all-clear area. For tourists, he said, even in the dry areas, there was concern about the inconveniences and the uncertainty of what was going on. Even if tourists had come, they would have had to deal with sub-standard services. Fewer taxis were plying the streets, stores and shops were shutting down and in restaurants, and patrons couldn’t even get a whisky-soda because the soda was not available. Said Mr Marwaan, “Even though many parts of the city were free of floods, they were under the constant risk of being affected. So there was no certainty about which area would be affected, and when. The city was on edge nearly all the time.”

In addition, Thai Airways International cancelled hundreds of flights, tour operators sought to salvage business and rebook it elsewhere and a whole range of other problems emerged as normal life was disrupted by an unprecedented crisis which for many weeks had no light at the end of the tunnel. The fact that many of the submerged industrial estates affected dozens of Japanese corporations attracted the attention of the Japanese media. Several factories that manufactured most of the world’s supply of computer hard-disks also went under, which made headlines in the I.T. world.

Skirting Reality

The interviews by PATA’s Mr Craigs skirted all this reality. Rather than doing his homework, he took potshots at the media, a policy that one of his ousted predecessors also attempted and which has historically backfired on PATA. In a live interview with BBC World at White City television centre, Mr Craigs commented that its reporting on the floods should be more balanced and not appear as a “fact-free trailer for a disaster movie.” At the same time, however, Mr Craigs had no problem trying to get the media on-side to promote his advocacy campaign against the Air Passenger Duty and the carbon emissions tax.

The Thais themselves were taking a more cautious approach. On Nov 7, both the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) Governor Mr Suraphol Svetsreni and Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau (TCEB) President Mr Akapol Sorasuchart turned up at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand and provided what they described a “candid and honest” appraisal of the situation. It was a remarkable evening with Mr Akapol himself admitting that he could not believe what the government was saying about the situation. Both executives admitted the damage being caused, outlined the extensive measures being taken to cope with the present and future scenarios, and asked the media to “believe in Thailand” and the ability of its people to recover from crises.

Mr Suraphon outlined how the TAT is using its network of 25 offices and global connections to ensure that the right message reaches the right people. If Bangkok and other provinces such as the UNESCO World Heritage site of Ayutthaya were affected, many other places were not, such as Pattaya, Hua Hin, Phuket, Krabi and Samui. He called on potential visitors not to strike Thailand from their holiday plans, but indicated it would be understandable if they sought to avoid or bypass Bangkok. Both the TAT and TCEB were ready with response-and-recovery plans to swing into action when the situation improved.

Neither of the two executives indulged in media attacks. Both fielded some challenging questions, including some which stunted them. The co-author of this article, Don Ross, asked how they expected the Thai tourism industry to perform when many hotel staff could not get to their places of work. Peter Janssen, Thailand bureau chief of the German Press Agency DPA, asked what the poor Germans would do if the flow of their favourite beer was affected, even in distant places such as Phuket. Mr Marwaan asked about the impact on the quality of water for both drinking as well as showering. Another operator of a French-language website demanded to know what he should tell his hundreds of readers about when the crisis would be over. None of these questions got a credible answer, because none could be offered on Nov 7, when the crisis was still raging. But both the executives went out of their way to be honest, forthright and frank all through.

Clever & Courageous

Said the panel’s moderator Mr Laurent Malespine, a former Dow Jones Newswires journalist and now MD of Don’t Blink Co, a consulting and media representation company, “In the midst of a crisis like this, doing proactive as well as very factual and timely communication using all the appropriate media tools available is more important than criticising the news media for what they reported, even if I would agree that some of the reporting was over-dramatized, as always.

“I think it was very clever and courageous for Mr Akapol and Mr Suraphon to come out and state the plain facts, both the bad news about the impact of the floods on the central region and the positive facts to demonstrate how Pattaya, Phuket or Chiangmai were and are still able to operate pretty much normally. Their demonstration about how Thai tourism has become quite resilient after multiple crisis over the past 20 years was also positive. Mr Suraphon made it very personal saying how his own house was flooded.”

According to Mr Malespine, “The crisis, I believe, has made a lot of people in Thailand realise what are the areas in which all sectors, tourism included, need to make improvements, and that also means more effective communication about the problems and what is done to address them.”

Indeed, the Thai tourism industry has a long and robust history of exemplary media relations and management, from which PATA could learn a few lessons. Thai Airways International has been at the forefront, headed in the 1990s by master media-relations managers such as former President Mr Chatrachai Bunya-ananta, former VP Operations Capt Jothin Pamon-Montri, former VP Technical Capt Chusak Bhachaiyudh, the late VP Industry Affairs Neils Lumholdt and former PR Director Mrs Chitdee Rangvara. In the hotel sector, The Oriental’s veteran former General Manager Kurt Wachtveitl and his two guest and media relations stalwarts Phornsiri Luphaiboon and Angkana Kelantana could very well have written entire textbooks on handling visiting media and celebrities.

On Nov 23, the PATA Thailand Chapter will be converting this latest crisis for Thailand into an opportunity for itself with another seminar designed to “help facilitate a tourism recovery”. As the Thai tourism industry is already way ahead on this score, the seminar will give PATA and its crisis-management gurus more an opportunity to score a few public relations points than to contribute anything substantive. Mr Craigs is to be the keynote speaker. As PATA itself is trying to recover from years of internal crisis, caused largely by its own bungled communications and management strategies, it would be better off first seeking to learn from Thai tourism industry leaders how to deal with the media through honest, forthright and transparent communications.

Footnotes

A DVD of the Nov 7 event at the FCCT featuring the presentations by Mr Suraphon and Mr Akapol is available from the FCCT. It provides excellent pointers on professional crisis communications in tourism. Pls contact the club Tel.: 02-652-0580-1, Fax: 02-652-0582, E-mail:  info@fccthai.com. Website:  http://www.fccthai.com

Click on the link below for an historical perspective on one of the great Thai communicators, who could run rings around anyone in PATA. The Thais have every reason to be very, very proud of themselves.

The Oriental’s Iron Lady checks out: As she leaves the stage, iconic Bangkok hotelier Angkana Kelantana speaks about local legends like Jim Thompson and putting up with eccentrics like American actor Marlon Brando

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  • Atticus

    A couple of media training experts in Bangkok have leaped upon the wonderful material the neophyte CEO of the previously relevant travel trade association has so generously offered. The clips are exactly what they need to show students what NOT to say in an interview, how not to hector and how not to dress. This is a gift that just keeps on giving. Pity the last remaining members will have to put the cat out and turn off the lights.