Print Edition - 2016-10-16  |  Free the Words

A peep into public relations

  • Politicians should be careful not to undermine their public image, which takes years to build
- Jainendra Jeevan

Oct 16, 2016-When Donald John Trump was passing lewd comments about women more than a decade ago (made public by The Washington Post recently), he certainly did not imagine that he would one day become the Republican nominee for the President of the United States, and that the comments would damage his election prospects. Both have happened. 

Trump, as a leader, is no stranger to controversies. For example, first he promised to vet immigrants to discourage immigration in a country inhabited mostly by immigrants, who proudly tell their children about their journey to the country. Catching the sentiments of a sizable number of Americans who believe that immigrants are taking away their jobs, he proposed to fence the whole of US-Mexico border to stop the influx of Mexican immigrants. Employing isolationist, neo-conservative and anti-Islam rhetoric for a ‘new America’, he also proposed ‘to make America safe’ by banning Muslims from entering the country. 

Though this proposal was globally criticised, it did not ignite much remonstration in his home constituency. However, with his uncensored lewd comments about women, a growing number of Republicans themselves—barring some white, male, elderly and diehards—are now withdrawing their support to him. Therefore, Trump’s chances of reaching the White House have become slimmer with this new scandal.

The morale of this story is: Politicians should never undermine their public image which takes years to build and is only built when their performance, words and character all are polished, at least in front of the people. In case of fresh candidates like Trump whose performance has not been tested, public relation (PR) tools like speeches and moral fibre are what the people use in order to judge them. Any flaw in either may spark controversies, bring defeat in the election and, in some cases, even invite legal action.

A dignity of manner

Against this backdrop, let us now examine the PR of our prominent prime ministers since the restoration of democracy in 1990. Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, the most widely read and intellectual leader of his time and the first PM of the post-democracy era in Nepal, lost the battle for leadership of the party and premiership to his colleague Girija Prasad Koirala, an intellectual lightweight. Though no match to Bhattarai, who was far more learned, educated and intellectual, Koirala easily overtook him in the race of leadership. Several factors contributed to Koirala’s success. Bhattarai was more of a philosopher while Koirala was a doer. The latter was helpful, accessible and responsive to cadres, and skilled in handling, organising and mobilising them. Therefore, he naturally became more popular among them than Bhattarai. However, it was the temperamental shortcomings of Bhattarai that allowed Koirala to gather windfall benefits the way Trump’s temperamental weaknesses are  benefitting Hillary.

Despite his long struggle for the cause of democracy including more than 10 years of solitary confinement, Bhattarai lacked a prime minister’s gravitas. He would always crack jokes in public, some of which might be full of meaning. While a few people would understand the hidden messages, the masses would misunderstand him. More often than not, the fatherly figure would announce in public gatherings that he would marry soon—a shameless statement for a man of his age and stature in our culture. Though he remained unmarried forever, marriage was his favourite topic to talk about, and that too in public. 

Except with his close friends known as the Calcutta group of Nepali Congress, he was impatient and impolite with visitors, especially the cadres who could only meet him after much sweat. All this paved the way for his defeat at the hands of Koirala, who had plenty of common sense and energy, qualities which Bhattarai hardly possessed. An image-conscious, consequence-conscious and taciturn Koirala never spoke anything in public that would generate controversy. Late Sushil Koirala and Sher Bahadur Deuba, both party presidents and former prime ministers, also adopted Koirala’s style. Both would avoid controversies by refraining from talking unnecessarily. Public oratory was comfortable neither for Sushil Koirala nor for Deuba. Deuba’s public speeches are boring and brief. However, similar to late Girija Koirala, he is a super performer and communicator when it comes to dealing with people in indoor meetings. 

Talking sense 

The present leaders of two big communist parties, the CPN-UML and the Maoist Centre, are not immune from this ‘petit bourgeois’ ill of poor PR either. Former PM and Chairman of CPN-UML, KP Sharma Oli and PM and Chairman of the Maoist-Center Pushpa Kamal Dahal both love to explain things at great length. Both can speak in public for hours. Both are articulate; but they tend to over-explain, leaving plenty of room for misunderstandings and misinterpretations. Oli not only overuses idioms and metaphors in his speeches, but also passes sarcastic remarks about his opponents, which antagonise his rivals and expose him to unnecessary controversies. Both react quickly to criticism and both get excited when their followers or party cadres applaud. The result is that after each round of applause, they speak more, and speak more irresponsibly. While Dahal is unstable and keeps changing his views, Oli is obstinate. The latter hardly changes his position or opinion, sticks to his views, and thus squanders opportunities to solve problems.

Madhab Kumar Nepal from the UML does not pass controversial remarks, but these days he also demonstrates arrogance frequently. His speeches are often too long, which become boring after a while. Jhalanath Khanal of the same party is also an articulate speaker. But because of his poor organisational grip in the party, he is unlikely to become party president or prime minister once again. Baburam Bhattarai, the most educated and the rebel-turned-reformist leader, is very innovative as far as impersonal PR tactics are concerned. For instance, he used to dine with a poor family once a month when he was the prime minister. But his personal communication skills are very poor. He hardly ever smiles, never apologises for mistakes and keeps himself glued to his point, no matter how strongly the audiences, or the general people, dislike it.

Published: 16-10-2016 08:33

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