Words of comfort aid Tung's popularity

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 August, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 August, 1998, 12:00am

Tung Chee-hwa seems to be finally boosting his public image. In a tacit departure from his low-profile approach, the Chief Executive has shown a compassionate side at least three times over the past 20 days.

On August 5, he issued a written statement urging those who had failed the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination not to lose heart.

He told the less successful school leavers: 'Failure is the only high road to success. To fail once does not mean that this is the end of everything.' Although he did not seek to deliver his remarks on television, the move has marked a new public relations strategy.

His words of comfort became banner headlines in several major newspapers. In contrast, he did not bother to offer any comments last year on the release of the crucial examination results that shape the future of some 130,000 youngsters each year.

Last Wednesday, residents were shocked by the brutal attack on radio talk-show host, Albert Cheng King-hon. Mr Tung again refrained from volunteering comments for the evening news. Yet, the press was tipped off by a source which said Mr Tung already had the Commissioner of Police Eddie Hui Ki-on on the line, charging him with the task of cracking the case.

He continued to stay away from press cameras after three kidney patients were killed in a blunder at the Hong Kong Sanatorium and Hospital. However, he dispatched a four-paragraph release on the tragedy.

Some critics remain unconvinced of his recent warm gestures. For instance, he has been criticised in some columns for failing to personally console the survivors and families of the kidney dialysis victims. However, over the past few weeks, the Chief Executive's Office has been moving in the right direction, salvaging Mr Tung's sagging popularity.

Even some of Mr Tung's Executive Councillors, including unionist Tam Yiu-chung, joined the chorus to lash out at his lack of sensitivity on public issues. Mr Tung has yet to overcome his media-phobia, but at least his aides are now setting the publicity wheels spinning.

Mr Tung's propaganda machine appears to be better oiled than last month, when he disappeared from the limelight during the Chek Lap Kok airport fiasco. Earlier, he had also been perceived as having taken too passive a role during the bird flu crisis.

Mr Tung reportedly considered it beneath him to engage in political showmanship. He would rather focus his mind on substantial actions than public relations.

Hopefully, it has now dawned on the Chief Executive that effective communication with the public has long been accepted as an indispensable component of any government policy.

Without his spin doctors, President Bill Clinton might have already failed to hang on to his presidency.

The term public relations is believed to have been coined by the third United States president. Thomas Jefferson is often credited as the first person to combine the words 'public' with 'relations' as early as 1807.

The art of political image-building dates back at least to Darius the Great in 500 BC, who consolidated Persian power in the East. The king had his image stamped on Greek coins and Persian shekels as a symbol of unity.

Even Jesus recognised the authority of the image on the coins in the Gospel. The Messiah was quoted by Matthew as saying that the coins bearing the face of Caesar should be returned to him.

The practice of public relations has long passed the days of emperors making statues and minting coins.

But public perception remains a critical factor in making or breaking any government.