Susilo all mixed up when it comes to PR

I wrote this for The Jakarta Post on 28 September 2005
The nation is facing a possible bird flu epidemic. The government decides to act and just before the Cabinet meets last Tuesday, the President discusses a campaign on the safe consumption of chicken meat.

In a photo opportunity, the President holds up a poster for the campaign. The headline on the poster reads: "Chicken meat and eggs are nutritious foods."

DOUBLE TAKE: Is this a campaign to promote the consumption of poultry and eggs or to educate the public on how to make sure the chicken and eggs they eat are safe amid the possibility of a bird flu epidemic? What sort of a cockamamie public relations advice has the President been subjected to again?

Almost one year into his presidency, the photo of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono holding up that poster, as Vice President Jusuf Kalla looks on passively, is somehow emblematic of all that is wrong with the President's public relations.

Here you have a man who is obviously full of integrity and with concern about what is happening to his people etched on his face. He probably instructed his communications aides to come up with a campaign to educate people so that they would be safe from the effects of bird flu. His people go away and come up with a disconnected message. The local phrase for disconnect, ngak nyambung, is extremely appropriate.

If there is a phrase to sum up the President's public relations efforts over the past year, ngak nyambung would be it. It would describe perfectly the tedious efforts his PR gurus have put into building up his image, only to deliver messages that come close to, but somehow never, address the real issues. The result is lots of form without substance; window dressing without the accompanying view.

The ongoing fuel crisis is a good example of ngak nyambung communications. In moments of crises people expect their leaders to give them an assessment of the situation, articulate how they intend to lead the nation out of the situation, give them hope for optimism and then spring into action.

What we get instead is window dressing. There were the appeals to turn down air conditioners, the eschewing of warm western suits for cool batik and the expediency of subsidizing the poor with the money gained from slashing subsidies.

But when it came to action, it was a case of dithering and murmurs of inevitable fuel price hikes. There has so far been no eloquent articulation of a plan to lead Indonesia out of the problem, the necessary steps that need to be taken and the sacrifices required of each and everyone of us to free Indonesia once and for all from the yoke of fuel subsidies. Why couldn't the President's PR gurus have devoted as much energy to this endeavor as they spent setting up photo opportunities of the President in batik?

Then there was the video-conferencing brouhaha. Susilo goes to Washington and uses video-conferencing to keep in touch with the Cabinet. Good on him. In doing so he joins the countless legions of top business and government executives who use technology to keep in touch and help him make decisions. No big deal.

The window dressers, however, could not let this opportunity pass. They had to create a media opportunity of it by inviting the media to witness the first few minutes of this remarkably savvy use of technology. The result is endless criticism and speculation of a rift with his Vice President. Ngak nyambung communication strikes again.

Indeed the President's image gurus' infatuation with technology is now notorious. How many of us can forget the incident where the President must have been advised to give out his personal cell phone number to anyone who wanted to complain about the government? Or when millions of Indonesians got a personal SMS from the President telling them to stop using drugs?

The image gurus are also obsessed with creating photo opportunities, thinking that they can boost Susilo's popularity with images depicting him as a caring man of the people. Those interested in getting the full catalog of cheesy promotional photographs that have made it into the newspapers can pick up a recent copy of a the curiously titled magazine Men's Obsession, which demonstrates hagiography at its best.

As the President completes his first year in office there is a loud call for him to replace his economic ministers. Perhaps the President should also review the performance of his image advisers who have failed to capitalize on the new administration's greatest asset: Susilo himself.

In spite of all the PR muddles Susilo still has the goodwill of the people at large. People generally like him. They think he is honest, full of integrity and genuinely wants to move Indonesia forward, but is hampered from doing so because of the low caliber and integrity of those around him.

Entering his second year Susilo has to act fast and decisively to show that he can rise above these limitations. If he fails to do so, fickle public sentiment could begin to turn against him. He needs to act and part of this action is to communicate effectively in a way that is credible and that connects with the people, rather than resorting to window dressing, platitudes and lots of sound bites signifying nothing.

Almost a year after taking office what is the state of President Susilo's image? How is he perceived by the public and the media?

There will no doubt be a plethora of surveys on all sorts of perceptions on all aspects of Susilo's presidency by next week to commemorate his first year in office. Here, however, is an unscientific and opinionated PR practitioner's view of Susilo's public image:

Surprisingly, President Susilo has survived the first year with his image quite intact, in spite of obviously appalling PR advice, being surrounded by non-performing ministers with their own agendas and having to face thorny issues such as the tsunami, the falling rupiah and the fuel subsidy.

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