The social-media wizardry behind Bangkok Governor Chadchart’s popularity

Bangkok Governor Chadchart Sittipunt beams as he poses with his team, including his communications director Prab Laoharojanaphan (far left).

Bangkok Governor Chadchart Sittipunt has built a huge following on social media, reaching millions of netizens who read, watch, like and comment on his regular posts and content. The credit for his online appeal goes not just to his communication team and its strategy, but also to Chadchart’s character and easygoing attitude.

“Authenticity is the essence of his Facebook page,” says Prab Laoharojanaphan, who has been overseeing this social-media account for nine years and played a big role in Chadchart’s successful election campaign this year.

Chadchart’s Facebook page now has more than 2.5 million followers – five times more than before he became Bangkok governor in late May.

Prab, however, refuses to take all the credit, saying the impressive results of the strategy are down to Chadchart himself.

“To begin with, we have a really good ‘product’ [Chadchart] to present,” Prab said during an interview with Thai PBS World.

Chadchart’s essence

Born on May 24, 1966, Chadchart was a bright student. He attended the prestigious Triam Udom Suksa School before taking a bachelor’s in engineering at Chulalongkorn University and then heading to the United States to further his education.

He returned to Thailand with a master’s degree in engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a PhD in the same subject from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Before entering politics, Chadchart worked as an associate professor at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Engineering while also serving as the university’s assistant president.

As an academic, he was appointed as transport advisor to several governments before being made deputy transport minister in 2012 under then-PM Yingluck Shinawatra. On October 27, 2012, he was promoted to transport minister, a post he held until the government was ousted by the military coup on May 22, 2014.

“We created his Facebook page in 2013, while he was transport minister because we wanted to use social media to win public confidence,” Prab said. Back then, the Transport Ministry planned to develop two-trillion-baht transport infrastructure including high-speed trains.

Judging by his academic and work record, it is clear that Chadchart has always been a highly capable person. But to gain public trust, he needed to reach out and form a relationship with people.

“We let him write his posts himself, and some of them are relatively long because they demonstrate that he actually understands what he is talking about,” Prab said.

He added that because Chadchart has great potential, ability and dedication to his work, his team resolved that all of his online communication should reflect these qualities.

His Facebook Live broadcasts, which he started on the day he registered for the gubernatorial race, aim to bring him closer to people and also to display his knowledge.

“If you see him at work, you can’t help noticing his skills and his empathy for people,” Prab said. One of Chadchart’s Facebook Live sessions, which are also recorded and available to watch later, won more than 10 million views.

‘World’s strongest minister’ memes

While Chadchart did not become an instant idol back in 2013, he did win followers. His name was among the most frequently searched on Google that year. He also inspired plenty of memes after an image of him walking barefoot into a temple carrying heavy-looking bags of food for monks went viral. The image also won him the moniker of “world’s strongest minister”.

Now that he’s back in the field of politics as Bangkok governor, he is once again a favorite subject of memes.

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Strategic and cautious yet fun

Content on Chadchart’s social-media accounts, which now include TikTok, is the result of careful strategic planning. Only topics that are deemed important and relevant to people are chosen, and each one undergoes a careful checking process. As Chadchart has said, there’s no reason to rush.

“Once Chadchart finishes writing his post, every team member studies it from every angle as an extra precaution. Sometimes we sleep on it to ensure we haven’t missed anything,” Prab said.

Though there is no vote held, the team will only go ahead with posting the content once everybody agrees it is fine. The idea is to thoroughly screen issues that may be sensitive or open to misinterpretation.

Yet, despite all the serious deliberation and planning, Chadchart’s communication strategy has “fun” at its core.

“To ensure our messages are fun, we make sure each team member is having fun. If we enjoy doing our job, then there’s a good chance that our communication campaign will be fun too,” Prab said.

While campaigning, Chadchart used several interesting gimmicks to woo voters – including rapping. His PR team could not rely on looks alone, as the former transport minister is not considered handsome by current Thai standards.

“We used to receive comments like Chadchart is not good-looking or attractive,” Prab said. “So, we responded by coming up with caricatures. The feedback is good.”

Comprehensive, insightful

Prab has designed Chadchart’s communication strategy carefully, backed by solid study. He checked several surveys before coming up with a package to present the governor’s policies for the capital.

Chadchart had over 200 policies in his head while running the gubernatorial race, and Prab supported this approach since it echoed a trend among US presidential candidates. Barack Obama ran for president with 28 key policies in 2008, while Hillary Clinton listed 41 policies eight years later, and last year Joe Biden unveiled 51 before being elected president.

“The Democratic Party’s campaign document is also getting longer. Back in 1988, it was 5,000 words but in 2020 it grew to 40,000 words,” Prab said.

A specialist in communications science, Prab understands well that the internet has changed the way we consume information. People are now more active: when they become interested in an issue, they browse the net for information.

“This is why we created a policy platform for Chadchart, not a policy catalog,” the communications expert said.

Instead of presenting a long list of policies, simply says the new governor has many policies for them to explore. His 200-plus policies are split into different categories, so visitors can zoom into what is most relevant to them.

“We had about 150 policies when we first launched the website. Over time, that number has risen to 216 based on visitors’ responses,” he said. “It’s interesting to find that ‘student uniform’ is among the top 20 search words on the website. This shows us what is important for some people.”

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk

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