Donald Tsang

C.Y.'s dilemma: to spin, or not to spin?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 June, 2012, 12:00am

Does C.Y. need a spin doctor? Most politicians have had them for years. But Leung Chun-ying seems to have realised that the magic powers of spin could be limited in successfully building the image of a leader.

In a recent interview with the South China Morning Post, C.Y. attributed the growing discontent of the public towards the government to 4 Ds. Hong Kong people are disfranchised and disengaged; they then feel disowned and have turned distrustful of the government. C.Y. vowed he would reach out to meet and listen to the people.

'This is a political job, not something spin doctors can do,' he said.

However, C.Y. was quick to add that he didn't mean to undermine the importance of media, and that his future media liaison team would take a more proactive attitude.

'I won't expect them to just sit in the office waiting for calls of media inquiries from reporters. Instead, they should take the initiative to call you and explain more [about government policies]'.

But isn't taking the initiative to call the media part of the job of a 'spin doctor'? The crux of the issue is whether it works and to what extent. Those who have watched Robert De Niro in Wag the Dog should remember that famous quote: 'Does the dog wag the tail, or does the tail wag the dog'?

When the media are briefed, or spoon-fed, by the government, the result may not lead to the desired outcome. Instead, the strategy can backfire, making the media more sceptical, and even critical. And those who are not fed, or are less well fed, will surely complain, with the same critical result. Thus, the line between being proactive with media and trying to 'manipulate' it can be very delicate.

People and politicians in Hong Kong first learned about the concept of 'political spinning' from the last British governor, Chris Patten, whose gestures of kissing and hugging children in the streets, and joyfully eating Chinese egg tarts in local shops changed the public's perception on the once aloof colonial officials. But the term 'spin doctor' did not become popular until seven years ago when Donald Tsang Yam-kuen was sworn in as chief executive after the sudden resignation of Tung Chee-hwa. Tung, who believed strongly in the principle of 'the deed speaks louder than words', was reluctant to cultivate the media, which subsequently turned critical and even hostile towards him.

Aware of the media's power to shape perceptions, Tsang attached high value to building media relationships and introduced the concept of political spin. However, now that Tsang's term is coming to an end, his popularity rate has dropped to a record low of 38 per cent, despite the efforts of his 'spin doctors'. The reason is simple. The public and the media do not judge a politician, especially a leader, by what they are told or advised to read or write. They judge by what they see with their own eyes.

Now is the time for C.Y. to learn from his predecessors' lessons: neither 'deeds not words' nor political spin work by themselves. C.Y., it seems, will do something in between, making the effort to explain his policies and views through the media, while doing more handshaking in the streets. The more controversial the issue, the more he will come to the media.

What C.Y. and his cabinet must consider is that Hong Kong's media is diverse, and won't be ignored or spun. Frequent briefings will not equate to favourable coverage. The only thing political cosmetics can achieve, to use a Chinese saying, is 'add flowers to the bouquet'. The controversies Tsang now faces over his alleged acceptance of favours from business tycoons and luxury hotel stays on overseas trips proves this. No amount of spin could help him out of the crisis.

For C.Y., what his media officers can do is supplementary, not decisive; they may add a touch to his bouquet but he will have to gather most of the flowers himself.