BANGKOK (eTN) – Among the different countries of Southeast Asia, Thailand is certainly the one that has been able to capitalize the best on its image. For decades, tourists all across the world have been fed images of smiling girls and pristine beaches. As a result, Thailand’s tourism gained worldwide recognition. The current “Amazing Thailand” campaign can still be considered as a legacy of those old days. The Tourism Authority of Thailand and national carrier, Thai International, are in fact very active in communicating their messages to both consumers and the media.
But this is deluding as it masks the reality of PR in Thailand. Most Thai companies and institutions have difficulty communicating to a non-Thai public. This is largely due to people vying for PR positions with little clue about international communications. And also because of a deeply-rooted feeling for many Thais that they are superior to others and have consequently little to gain or learn from foreigners. Thailand’s education system is mostly to blame for it.
A good example is the way the city of Bangkok handles its communications. Once a year, as the host city for travel journalists, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) Unit for Tourism organizes a press conference at the Thailand Travel Mart. Last September during the TTM, the BMA Tourism Department sent Mr. Kriengpol Padhanarath, a charming old man appointed Deputy Director General of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, who had incredible difficulties understanding and speaking English in front of foreign media. During the ritual meeting with the media, he showed a powerpoint presentation which looked strangely similar to the one they showed a year before: 45 minutes of comments and pictures about what tourists could do in Bangkok. Most of the foreign media were certainly delighted to learn that Bangkok has a Grand Palace, beautiful temples, museums, and restaurants serving excellent Thai food.
Strangely, however, the old gentleman did not mention anything about what happened in the last couple of months and what was Bangkok’s new message to travelers after the violence from last spring. When a journalist asked if there had been any impact on tourism, Mr. Padhanarath replied that tourists had not been affected by the violence, generating surprise and scepticism. He finally admitted that he had not understood the question very well due to his poor English skills. Participating journalists then wondered why he was the one to be exposed to the foreign media and what kind of image he would then give of Bangkok’s administration. Most other questions, for example, about budgets for tourism, cooperation in tourism fields, etc. remained unanswered.
Mr. Padhanarath’s unprepared performance reflects the city administration’s communication skills: BMA has indeed been rather quiet with foreign media since the outbreak of violence in April and May. The only big media communication exercise occurred during the public cleaning of the Rachaprasong/Lumpini area, which served as the retrenched camp of the Red Shirts with a BMA Deputy Governor for Tourism, all smiles, explaining that Bangkok residents were coming back together; and since then, nothing.
The most ironic thing is probably that the city of Bangkok is moving ahead with many projects: there are plans to set up a bike trail to Thonburi on the other side of the Chao Praya River. A budget has just been approved to continue to put underground hanging electric street cables in historic areas such as Rattanakhosin Island, Yaowarrat (Chinatown), and also in parts of Sukhumvit Road. There are also new projects to renovate historical façades around the Royal Palace at Sanam Luang (Royal Field), and there are also street festivals, and free shows at the municipal Bangkok Art and Cultural Center. However, little of this is known by tourists or by foreigners living in the city.
After years of bad public exposure, is it finally not the right time for Bangkok to ask real professionals in communication to maybe take on the task of providing a more accurate image of the Thai metropolis? By then, Thailand’s (still) exciting capital will probably be on its way to becoming the sophisticated city it claims to be.