Burson Marsteller's Bob Pickard is your Asia-Pacific ThinkTank commentator. He will be responding to events in the region on a weekly basis, offering a provocative view of the PR issues at stake. You can reach Bob on [email protected]
Travelling in Thailand last week, most people I met were talking about the country’s new Prime Minister-elect, Yingluck Shinawatra, who just won a convincing election victory. Interest in the outcome has also been riding high overseas, and that is unsurprising because this story contains several newsworthy elements.
First, Yingluck shares her brother Thaksin’s famous surname. Second, there has been a long power struggle pitting the colour-coded ‘red shirts’ of the Shinawatra side against the ‘yellow shirts’ supporting the outgoing government and there’s nothing the news business loves more than a battle between two starkly different sides (who in this case have been fighting a closely watched pseudo civil war). Third, the prospect of election violence made media watch more closely than might otherwise be the case because there seemed an excellent chance it could erupt in the aftermath of the vote. Finally, Yingluck seems quite unlike other Thai leaders because she is a woman and this sets her apart in a country where most senior political leaders are men.
In Bangkok there is all kinds of speculation about how long Yingluck will last in office. The most frequent prediction I heard was “a year, maybe two.” This is, after all, a country where the results of democratic elections have not always determined who ends up running the country. Yet just about everyone I spoke with is hoping that Thailand’s new elected government will be given a fair chance to succeed and that the democratic process will prevail.
There has been a sad political instability in Thailand for years, holding the country back and making it seem a rickety regime and a bad bet for doing business. Now that Thailand seems to have a chance for a fresh start with a popular new government, there is an opportunity for the country to earn a new and improved reputation overseas.
The key to building a better Thailand brand is the ability to exceed expectations, for positive things to happen henceforth that are contra to the past negative or limiting stereotypes. For example, boring stability for a change would be an effective antidote to the past eventful and erratic political pattern.
Not many people know that Thailand is the second largest economy in Southeast Asia (after Indonesia), so communicating the commercial dimensions of the country will help underline why markets and media should pay closer attention.
How many famous Thai companies are there around the world? I would say most people could not name one. This limits the extent to which opinion-leaders will feel that “Thailand matters.” This lack of known national champion corporations (like LG or Hyundai in Korea) keeps Thailand confined to a national stereotype template as a terrific tourism destination but not as a serious commercial contender.
I am told that there are many Thai companies that merit external attention and engagement, but unlike conglomerates in other ASEAN countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, I don’t see any actively communicating their story through public relations on a global basis.
That’s why the fact that Yingluck is a CEO with experience as a company spokesperson may be her most significant public relations asset. She has run a business in Thailand and her ascension to high office has allowed her communications skills to flourish. I believe that this should help her help Thailand become a rising force in the world of national reputation.