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Even the government's 'good news' is badly handled

Commerce Minister Boonsong Taeriyapirom and his two deputy ministers meet the press.

Commerce Minister Boonsong Taeriyapirom and his two deputy ministers meet the press.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was supposed to have blown her top during a special meeting of Cabinet members on June 7 at Baan Phitsanulok. Thai Post Daily said she was very upset that ministers and their assistants had left her to defend the government almost all alone.

It was the same day that Commerce Minister Boonsong Taeriyapirom and his two deputy ministers met the press to say that they couldn't offer any exact numbers on the heavy financial losses incurred from the government's controversial rice-price pledging programme.

"The reported Bt260-billion loss, as claimed in the press, is wrong. It is politically motivated," he declared.

Reporters kept up a barrage of questions demanding to know the exact numbers. If the minister said the reported figure was wrong, what's the truth?

The ministers appeared dumbfounded. Minister Boonsong said, "I can't give you the figures because it's still a work in progress. The whole scheme will end perhaps in two or three years," he said, suggesting that he can probably offer some numbers by then.

In fact, one of his deputies even said the statistics on the losses couldn't be revealed because "it's a government secret".

It wasn't even funny. It was a bad joke. Reporters left the press conference not only disappointed. They went away even more confident that the government is hiding some nasty facts from the public.

That's probably what the premier was mad about when she told her Cabinet members that they must be proactive about doing public relations on the government's performance. Minister Boonsong might have been urged by the premier to "go out there and talk to the public" about this highly sensitive issue that has plagued the government. But when he finally did, it was nothing short of a major PR disaster.

The question wasn't that the minister hadn't tried to give out "good news" about the government. The real issue was that there was no good news to be delivered - and even when attempts were made to face the press, the minister made things worse by saying a lot without saying anything.

Premier Yingluck was quoted by the Thai-language newspaper as complaining loudly to her Cabinet members that only about 30 per cent of the news being circulated is favourable to the government, while 70 per cent is negative. She probably wanted that ratio reversed when she appointed a cross-ministry PR committee to make sure that the public, from now on, gets more good news about her and her government.

That won't come soon enough, though. The public demands more accurate, open and transparent information about all the major projects that will weigh heavily on taxpayers. But nothing has been forthcoming. If anything, Cabinet members and senior bureaucrats concerned have been holding back on vital facts and figures. Newsmen trying to pry open the doors that conceal hidden information have been targeted as "enemies", while partisan news outlets have lost credibility.

Good PR doesn't mean force-feeding "good news" to the public. It means dealing with bad news in an open and down-to-earth manner. It means respecting criticism from various quarters and accepting responsibility for mistakes when they are made. No government can ram "good news" down the people's throats. A good government humbly accepts its setbacks and makes clear how it intends not to repeat them.

Good PR also means being serious and honest with facts and figures. The commerce minister was seen to be trying to avoid telling the truth, and was caught off-guard when reporters refused to let him off the hook.

Premier Yingluck, in her position as chairman of the National Rice Policy Committee, cannot pass the blame solely onto the minister. She is right there in the eye of the storm. The only way out is for her to sack the ministers involved and take personal charge of the situation - if she finally comes to accept the full range of responsibilities as the country's CEO. That's where the buck stops.


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