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Unless otherwise noted, all quotes by Ryan (last name withheld for privacy), public relations expert.
In September 2010, just months after waves of protests and subsequent government crackdowns had left Thailand reeling and facing an uncertain future, the prominent travel trade publication eTurboNews (eTN) published a scathing attack on the state of public relations in Thailand.
The article, titled Bangkok’s Administration Still Has a Lot to Learn About PR, by the writer Luc Citrinot, accused Thai PR companies of having “difficulty communicating to a non-Thai public,” and “little clue about international communications.”
By way of an example, Citrinot related an experience he’d had attending a press conference organized by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) Unit for Tourism at the Thailand Travel Mart earlier that month.
During the press conference, the BMA’s representative—who, Citrinot notes, had a great deal of difficulty understanding English—spent forty-five minutes running through a PowerPoint presentation extolling the wonderful temples and museums and delicious food a tourist could expect when vacationing in Thailand.
So far, so typical.
Notably absent from his talk was any mention, or even acknowledgment, of the violence earlier that year, nor what the government planned to do to reassure tourists that they could expect to travel safely in the kingdom.
When asked by a journalist if the violence had any effect on tourism, the representative shrugged it off and stated—to the incredulity of the assembled hacks—that it had had no effect on tourism whatsoever.
Under further interrogation, the representative attempted to downplay his mistake by claiming not to have understood the initial question due to his lack of English.
It’s certainly true that Thailand struggles with public relations, particularly when it comes to dealing with people from outside the country—which is somewhat surprising, as many of their marketing campaigns have been extraordinarily effective.
Up until the 1980s, public relations in Thailand largely consisted of “one-way information dissemination and favorable image delivery.”
The concept of a dialogue (two-way communication) is a fairly recent development in the Thai PR scene, and as the BMA’s blunder above shows, one that many in the Thai PR field are still having difficulties with.
Increasingly, however, many organizations, particularly in the private sector, are looking to adapt the more westernized two-way approach—and it’s here that foreign PR consultants like Ryan come in.
It should be pointed out here—before we meet our foreign PR correspondent to get the lowdown on just what working in PR here entails—what the difference between public relations and marketing is.
Although at times the two cross paths, at its essence marketing is about selling a product, and PR is about selling a reputation.
Marketing covers advertising, promotions, and client outreach. Public relations covers corporate communications to the public and shareholders, and the generating of positive media coverage.
It also covers damage control in the event of disaster.
The art of being good at marketing, then, is the art of being a good salesman.
The art of being a good public relations expert is the art of being a good communicator—and it was this lack of ability to communicate that led to the BMA’s public relations disaster at the start of this chapter.
For this reason, while marketers generally come from sales backgrounds, PR consultants usually come from journalism and the media.
Ryan, who works for an international PR agency in Bangkok, is no different. After several years working as a journalist, Ryan recently made the move over to PR.
[Journalism] degrees and a background and experience in journalism certainly helped. It also took a lot of work once I was actually in the field to learn all about was needed.”
Typically, the role of a PR professional like Ryan covers a wide variety of duties.
These range from aiding marketing campaigns through articles, press releases, statements, events, and comment through the media to helping shape the debate around contentious issues.
He describes a typical day as:
[varying] widely depending on which clients we’re working with at the moment, but it includes sending emails, answering queries, attending events, writing press releases and devising strategies of how to raise awareness for products, events or whatever it might be.”
This is another reason why having an ex-journalist on board is a benefit—not only are they skilled communicators, but an established journalist should have a wealth of media contacts from which to draw on when necessary.
Increasingly technology is also changing the PR game. Many top PR firms incorporate digital and social media into their services and offer multi-channel distribution of content as a matter of course.
Modern PR campaigns will also seek the help of prominent bloggers and other online influencers to help sell their message.
For this reason, being tech-savvy and holding some knowledge of SEO is another huge advantage when it comes to seeking PR work.
There’s also the cultural context to consider when it comes to seeking PR work in Thailand.
The most successful PR firms are generally those who can incorporate a modern approach with an understanding of Thai business culture and strong connections to offer clients.
Finding work in PR in Thailand is once again heavily dependent on networking.
For experienced and established journalists, this networking should be fairly straightforward—the two worlds of journalism and PR have long shared a close relationship, and the decline of print media has seen them all but intertwine.
Ryan claims to have landed his job through a somewhat unusual manner.
I actually found out about the opportunity via a retweet.
Finally, personal image is also another integral component of landing a job.
A large part of it is how you present yourself on the day of the interview, because at the end of the day you’re going to not only represent that company, but other companies as well. Of course, you also have to know what the job is all about as well, and do research about the company.”
As one would expect for such high-pressure work, salaries are commensurately pretty high.
Ryan states that an average salary for someone starting out in his field would range from 75,000 baht to 100,000 baht per month, and those with experience and a proven track record can expect to make even more than that.
Public Relations is not for everyone, of course.
Cynics will dismiss it as being inherently underhanded and duplicitous, particularly in comparison to the high-reaching values that journalism is said to represent.
There are some who take a dim view of journalists who sellout by switching over to the dark side of public relations.
Others would point out that increasingly the worlds of PR and the media are barely discernible, and that PR need not necessarily be a force for evil.
Sometimes companies and other organizations should get to share their side of the story, and in a competitive and reputation-driven world it’s essential for them to do everything possible to maintain their image.
Obviously your mileage may vary, but what is certain is that PR can be an exciting and challenging field, in which you get to take center-stage in the mass-media dialogue and put your skills as a communicator to good use.
Now, on to You
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