PR industry unfazed by coup in Thailand

'Business as usual,' says the PR industry after Thai military takes over, shuts down TV networks.

Thai troops patrolling the streets of Bangkok
Thai troops patrolling the streets of Bangkok

Thailand’s communications industry says it has not yet been affected by the dramatic power shift in Bangkok that saw the military take over control of the government last week. Until recently Thailand was run by a democratically elected but polarizing government led by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

But after weeks of protests that brought parts of capital Bangkok to a standstill, a court removed her on May 7 on charges of ‘abuse of power’. Now the military has formally taken over and men in uniform are in charge. On Mon 26 May coup leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha was formally endorsed by the king as head of a military council that will run the country. He warned he would use force if political protests flare up again. Although these events have alarmed investors and have sent signals of simmering instability, industry insiders within Thailand appear mostly undisturbed. 

"From a marketing and business point of view it all looks normal," Steve Vincent, managing director, Aziam Burson-Marsteller told PRWeek from Bangkok. He said his agency managed three product launches last week.

Speaking from Bangkok at the venue of a Vogue fashion event on Mon (26 May) Hasan Basar, managing director of a local boutique firm Bangkok PR described the military presence on the streets of Bangkok as "light touch". Last week his team went out with a group of 15 journalists to the scenic town of Hua Hin. He said there was another "major" consumer media event planned for Wed (29 May) and everything was "progressing as normal."

Headlines, however, paint a different story. International news networks showed heavily armed troops patrolling the streets of the Bangkok hours after the army announced the coup on live TV. For the time being all powers lie with the military run National Peace and Order Maintaining Council (NPOMC). The NPOMC has taken all politically aligned television networks off the air. It summoned members of the press for a "briefing" on the reporting of post-coup events. The junta has even set up a special unit to monitor social media.

President of Thai E-Commerce Association Pawoot Pongvitayapanu told PRWeek the decision by the military to shut down a number of political television networks had "not really impacted the whole industry but only some part on Satellite TV or local radio".

"I haven’t seen anything commercially affected," said Richard Lawrence, Marketing Manager, PepsiCo’s Snacks.

But it may not be all that well beneath the surface. "I have heard a number of upcoming events being moved around," said communications industry veteran Whitney Small. She told PRWeek that at least one organisation she knew had "postponed" its product launch. "This is a very sticky situation for everyone.  There is always the possibility of sudden changes and you have to be mindful of people being able to travel to and from events safely," she said.

Jintana Phongpakdee, corporate communications director of the Bangkok-based exhibition management firm IMPACT told PRWeek that the coup had resulted in the cancellation of a wedding and three "small" events but a big food festival, which over 2000 participants is being staged in the centre of Bangkok. According to the organizers the weeklong One Tambon (province) One Product exhibition is expected to draw over 250,000 visitors and yield 800 million Thai Baht ($24.5 million) worth of sales.

It is still business as usual for many in Thailand

"We have had a few previously scheduled media interviews postponed for executives as the media have been too busy with political news and assessing the situation. Otherwise, we have directly had no impact yet," Jennifer Poulson-Phan account director, Hill+Knowlton Strategies told PRWeek. She, however, did admit that the agency was "avoiding scheduling major press events."

"We just had one media dinner cancelled for this week, but that is due to the curfew," she said.

A day before the army seized power, the president of the Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau (TCEB) had sought to assure meeting planners. Nopparat Maythaveekulchai told delegates at Imex 2014 on May 22 that all MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Convention and Exhibition) venues and tourist attractions in the capital were "operating normally". The very next day the Thai military took over the government and arrested members of the cabinet and leaders of the protests. At time of making this report dozens of politicians and leaders were still detained at army camps—the most prominent of them being ousted PM Shinawatra.

According to Destination Asia, a leading travel management firm the current atmosphere within the capital is one of "peace and calm". "Life within the city continues to function as normal with the exception of the reduced shopping hours in the major malls and a cut in services from the mass transport links the sky train and the underground," it said in an update on its website on Mon 26 May.

Indeed, sources told PRWeek that popular tourist destinations such as Phuket, Samui, Hua Hin, Pattaya and Chiang Mai have been largely unaffected by events in Bangkok. Even so TCEB were predicting fewer business travelers in 2014.

More than one million business travelers visited Thailand in 2013 but only 987,000 visitors are predicted to travel to the country this year. Despite a 14 per cent rise in conferences during the first quarter of the year, the overall number of business events recorded in the first quarter has fallen by 3 per cent. The impact of the political unrest on PR events began to emerge in January when the Four Seasons group of hotels confirmed the cancellation of several business events in Bangkok. Hotel occupancy in the city has barely picked up since anti-government protests reached a peak in January.

Irrespective how unperturbed the communications and PR industry in Thailand may appear to be unless Thailand can find a way to make its politics more predictable the short term damage to the country’s business climate and reputation is inevitable to have a negative impact.

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