March 03, 2014 00:00 By Pradon Sirakovit
Special to T
"The Chinese use two brushstrokes to write the word 'crisis.' One brushstroke stands for 'danger'; the other stands for 'opportunity'. In a crisis, be aware of the danger but recognise the opportunity."
This quoted is attributed to the late John F Kennedy, then a US senator and later president. I chose to regurgitate a quote on crisis because of its relevance to the local context.
Politicians are the biggest manipulators of the media. They use the media to propagate populist policies, to wreak havoc on the opposition and to gain popularity among voters. The media are the most powerful tools a politician can use to build a party or simply to build his own brand image. After all, a politician is also a brand, just like the way a fizzy drink is sold.
This article is an analysis about how Transport Minister Chadchart Sittipunt rose to prominence in a time of political crisis. The political divide is at its peak. Partisan crowds congregate to direct verbal tirades at the enemy. Hate messages are communicated through political channels and, lives are lost. But Chadchart momentarily took the steam out of the political hotpot through unorthodox means.
When a picture of him wearing a black Nike tank top and shorts, on his way to making merit at a temple, went online late last year, a can of worms was opened. It went viral and sent netizens into a frenzy. Self-deprecation is one of the strongest comedic strategies funny people use to win audiences, and that’s what he did.
All politicians have a public relations agency working for them to assist with self-promotion. This phenomenon was a mixture of strategic brilliance and luck. Chadchart already had a significant Internet following as a politician who portrays himself as someone who actually works. Previous PR stunts, which ranged from riding on local buses to cycling in the Bangkok heat and even running in marathons gained attention from the masses, and his popularity grew.
We live in an era when various mobile platforms help us connect seamlessly with the digital world, and when the virtual world has become an extension of ourselves. Chadchart knew people were bored of the political climate, whichever side they had pledged their allegiance to. So he started a joke. This ironically reminds me of a famous song by The Bee Gees, “I Started a Joke”, which went, “I started a joke, which started the whole world crying, but I didn’t see that the joke was on me.”
The Holy Grail for clients and agencies alike is to be successful in viral campaigns, where the “earned” component of the paid-owned-earned communications model is most desired. Consumer participation is at its highest, and with the new realm of “mass consumer customisation”, we have gone beyond sharing content.
The success of memes has been attributed directly to advances in the digital infrastructure, and with such democratisation of digital technology, anyone with a device can easily edit and customise messages catering to one’s own sense of humour.
That’s exactly what happened when Chadchart’s photo was released online. Conversations initially started about the authenticity and motivation of the photo, which evolved to various editions of the picture and sent netizens into a digital craze like a plague.
Since the end of August 2013, Chadchart’s official Facebook page has grown from a mere 49,000 fans to more than 562,000. That is 11 times or just over 1,000-per-cent growth in the number of fans. A Socialbakers analysis on the top 10 politician fanpages in Thailand ranked his page eighth, but it was the fastest-growing page in the political arena under the same time frame, outpacing even the Shinawatra siblings 5-1.
Furthermore, his fanpage gained the highest PTAT (People Talking About This) growth rate at 158 per cent in the first week of February when various edits of the picture went viral, second only behind Apirak Kosayodhin’s PTAT during the same period. The trend was so infectious that a page on Facebook created by a group of fans dedicated to him went from zero to 130,000 fans in less than two months.
How did he attain such astronomical figures?
The idea of a politician dressed as a common man is unconventional, even inconceivable. In a world of big ideas, that was the mother of them all. It was political innovation at its pinnacle. He knew well that urbanites excessively use their digital devices for various purposes, and based on our proprietary Wave 7 Internet research in 2013, people just love to share. From a sample size of 1,100 people around Bangkok and urban upcountry heavy Internet users, we found that 80 per cent of this group had uploaded pictures at least once during the past month. From another study (IPG Connection Panel 2013) where 600 people around Bangkok and urban upcountry areas were surveyed, we also found that 80 per cent prided themselves in being well informed and up to date with the latest trends.
Chadchart took a great gamble, combining great insight on Thai Internet behaviour, extraordinary execution based on a simple idea, and a few ounces of luck, and his PR stunt paid off handsomely.
From relative obscurity to super-stardom, we have witnessed another phenomenon, this time in the political scene, and it just goes to show that with right timing and strategy, the digital space offers tremendous of opportunity in a crisis.
On an ending note, just to remind you, every crisis holds an opportunity, as mentioned by JFK, but only a handful of people are mindful enough to spot the chance to make something useful out of it. Will you or your brand become the next Internet sensation?
Pradon Sirakovit is group head for strategy and innovation, IPG Mediabrands Thailand.