Prayut’s commanding style does not work in a crisis
Leaders across the world are fighting the same battle – curbing the Covid-19 contagion – but not all have been successful. A key reason for leaders’ success or failure lies in how they communicate with their citizens to build public confidence and cooperation.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has been criticised by nearly everybody for his communication style since the Covid-19 virus hit the country three months ago.
His regular addresses to the nation have done little to boost the public’s trust and morale. A hangover from his military career, the former Army chief has a commanding style of speaking, which leaves the impression that he is standing above everybody rather than with them. His intentions may be good, but his gruff and aloof bearing means his messages are often misinterpreted.
Some critics say this clumsy communication style is merely a symptom of a deeper failing in Prayut as a leader – his inability to inspire confidence and trust in his people.
“His messages don’t sound sympathetic. Instead, he is always asking for sympathy from people. As a leader, he should be there for the people, the people don’t have to be there for him,” comments Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of political science at Ubon Ratchathani University.
“I think this is because he has never run for elections, which is why he doesn’t know how to convey his message properly.”
The way Prayut has chosen to deal with the outbreak shows that he is not fit to govern the country, the academic says.
“Leaders of other countries’ have taken a different approach, but Prayut’s performance hasn’t been impressive, nor has it shown how he is making sacrifices for the public’s interest.”
Titipol points out that with millions suffering from the economic impact of the outbreak, Prayut should be reprioritising national spending by redirecting funds meant for national security and weapons toward keeping people out of difficulties.
Wilaiwan Jongwilaikasaem, a communications expert at Thammasat University, believes that Prayut may be losing his legitimacy as a leader, judging from the wave of negative reaction on social media after each of his national addresses on the pandemic.
“His speeches always backfire on him,” says the associate dean for academic affairs at Thammasat’s Faculty of Journalism and Mass Communication. “His statements fail to build public confidence because they often don’t come with enough information to support his proposals or policies.”
Prayut’s recent statements have fuelled public anxiety and anger instead of building confidence and trust, critics say.
His government recently launched a scheme to help informal workers by giving them Bt5,000 in cash every month for three months. With the scheme in chaos as millions had trouble registering or were rejected by the software, Prayut told the nation after a Cabinet meeting on April 15 that his government could only afford these handouts for one month. After a public uproar, he then apologised and backtracked, saying the payments would be made for three months.
Two days later, public anger turned to ridicule with the hashtag #GovernmentBeggar trending immediately after Prayut announced on national TV that he would send an open letter to Thailand’s 20 richest tycoons to seek their help in overcoming the economic crisis triggered by the pandemic.
The PM later had to clarify that he was not asking for donations or loans from the billionaires, but was actually seeking their ideas on how to cushion the impact of the outbreak.
The widespread public anger is a result of Prayut’s unclear, incomplete messages, says Yuthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University.
“When he first spoke on the subject, he did not elaborate why he would send the letter or what criteria he had used to pick the top billionaires. So, the public automatically thought he’d be asking for money. Some people were even suspicious that the government would offer preferential treatment to the tycoons in return for their help,” he says.
Yuthaporn believes that inviting the titans of industry to share their ideas could help keep businesses afloat, but says the premier should listen to every sector, including civic society and low-income people who are suffering the worst in the lockdown.
He agrees that the negative reactions to Prayut’s speeches result from the public’s lack of confidence in his government, so they are more inclined to go against his announcements or interpret them negatively.
“For instance, many thought the government was failing in its administrative job or had even gone broke when Prayut said it had to issue executives decrees to borrow money to pay for the financial aid package,” he adds.
His personality and military style of thinking also contribute to Prayut’s poor communication, critics say.
“His commanding behaviour – Prayut’s style of issuing short, brusque orders rather than explaining things carefully so everyone can understand – sometimes does more damage than good,” Yuthaporn says.
Titipol adds that during crises like this one, we need to be transparent about facts to gain a true picture of the situation. Hence, Prayut should welcome criticism rather than suppressing it, so people are encouraged to speak out.
The academic says Prayut thinks like an authoritarian because he has never had to listen to anyone or accept criticism, adding that it will be difficult for him to change his communication style now.
Wilaiwan suggests that the PM appoint a personal spokesman who has strong communication skills and credibility to deliver his statements – which should always be clear and concise, so the public is never misled or confused.
“The PM has no communication skills, so his messages can always be interpreted in different ways, and the resulting confusion often gives rise to fake news, which spreads fast,” she says.
“During this crisis, people need a clear picture of what is happening with their lives, their careers and businesses as well as what will happen in the post-coronavirus era. A leader should be calling for collaboration between all sectors and, most importantly, he needs to listen to different points of view,” she says.
By Jintana Panyaarvudh