PR firms "call audibles" as Widodo abandons remainder of US visit due to deepening haze crisis

Silicon Valley charm offensive left to ministers as presidential visit to America ends with early retreat to address growing emergency, leaving PRs to rework their agendas

President Widodo meeting US Secretary of State John Kerry in Jakarta last year
President Widodo meeting US Secretary of State John Kerry in Jakarta last year

Indonesian president Joko Widodo has cancelled the rest of his first state visit to the US to return home and deal with the haze crisis miring his government in what some believe to be a humanitarian crisis.

Widodo was due to fly to the West Coast to meet with several Silicon Valley giants and discuss tech sector business, but ministers will take those meetings instead as he left Washington DC for Indonesia last night.

Presidential spokesman Ari Dwipayana said: "President Joko Widodo has decided to hasten his visit in the US to return home."

The last-minute aboutface has led to PR agencies rapidly adjusting their comms strategies to compensate.

Harry Tumengkol, co-founder of Image Dynamics, told PRWeek Asia his firm’s media plan for client Google has had to be re-jigged; it involved coverage from eight Indonesian media outlets of Widodo’s trip to Google’s Mountain View headquarters.

"We've been very hectic because of this cancellation and had to call audibles on the media trip," he said. "Several announcements and ceremonies were planned which involved among others Project Loon and YouTube.

"Now that the presidential trip is cancelled, with only ministers still going to the West Coast, we've had to do a little tweaking to our media trip agenda to make sure that Google's stories will still be told."

Indonesia’s haze has brought dangerous levels of pollution across Southeast Asia, affecting the nation’s Sumatra and Kalimantan regions as well as Malaysia and Singapore.

The Pollutant Standards Index rates anything over 300 psi as hazardous; in areas near where the forest fires are burning, the level is nearer 2,000 psi. Six Indonesian regions have declared a state of emergency.

According to several reports, at least 500,000 people have suffered respiratory illnesses since the fires began in July, and around 43 million people have been affected.

The Indonesian government, while touting for business in the US and claiming it wants to become a technology startup hub, has been heavily criticised for its inadequate efforts to stop the perpetrators of the fires.

Tumengkol said while there probably will not be any negative fallout for Widodo from cancelling his US trip early, the PR and political value of doing so will depend on what the president does when he returns.

Widodo has been heavily condemned for not taking a strong approach against those responsible, with many calling for fines, criminal sentences and compensation.

"If he just continues to visit hot fire zones and points to the smoke, it will all have been useless, shameful in fact," he told PRWeek Asia.

"The economy will be fine, but managing this fire that always seem to happen every year will shape the president's image for many.

However, Alex Ooi, at Roots PR, says Widodo's early exit from his US visit does not look good.

"The fact that he's cutting short his visit makes it look as though this was unanticipated even though the haze situation has been around for some time. To win back transnational confidence, he should act swiftly and communicate the actions undertaken," he said.

"Besides that, he should also communicate his gameplan for sorting out this yearly occurrence to garner international support as a president that's serious about taking Indonesia to the next level."  

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