Foreign Minister's comments: Why do they say what they say?

The foreign minister has given the government the perfect recipe for a PR disaster. It's ironic how the expression "being diplomatic" has completely lost its meaning for the top diplomat of the country. When your foreign minister requests the media to be more "considerate", you know he is in deep trouble for his "big mouth".

Even when things are normal, your foreign minister should not speak in public about matters such as price hikes, which he should understand from his "diplomatic responsibilities" are not for him to talk about. You also don't have to be a rocket scientist to know that a foreign minister should not blurt out in public that he has requested a foreign government to help his government stay in power; you only need common sense to know that "open secrets" are also secrets, and they are that way because nobody talks about them in public.

When times are as difficult as they are now, with the government under a lot of pressure with issues such as inflation and low forex reserves, ministers need to practice much more caution while speaking in public. At such a time, when your foreign minister says such things in public instead of practicing caution, you know this person is anything but "diplomatic".

This is nothing new in Bangladesh. Many ministers (many of whom were not career politicians) have said untoward things in the past and have sometimes gotten away with it. However, the recent proliferation of social media has made things even more difficult for these ministers who "never look before they leap". The expression "nothing is off the record" has never been truer. In fact, with 60 percent of members of the current parliament coming from a business background, these PR disasters are bound to increase in number in the future.

In Bangladesh, most members of the cabinet have their own public relations officers (PROs), whose primary role is to advise their bosses to stick to the tested talking points in order to avoid controversies. But in my experience as a political reporter for more than a decade now, I have never seen PROs being anything more than glorified personal assistants, whose roles are limited to arranging media coverage for events that the ministers attend. There are two reasons why these PROs never do what they are supposed to.

Firstly, unlike politicians in western democracies, Bangladeshi politicians at the helms of ministries are not used to consulting their PROs (who they probably think are just "lowly" members of their staff and hence find not worth consulting) before going out to speak in public. In fact, many western politicians even have multiple well-trained members of staff to do research and advise them accordingly on what to say and wear, where to go and how to deal with things. Bangladeshi politicians, on the other hand, always tend to think that they themselves know things "better" than anyone else. It's almost twice as hard for a long-time teacher turned politician (like our current foreign minister), because teachers are a lot more used to telling students what to do rather than being told by other people how to do things.

Secondly, the recruitment of PROs in the staff of ministers is almost always inaccurate. People hired for these positions have literally no experience or training in the science of communication, which includes knowing how to do research to prepare appropriate talking points for the ministers, manage reputational crises, and use digital communication technologies. One big reason behind this is that the government recruiters are also not aware of how important it is for a minister to have a PRO, or for that matter, to listen to PROs' advice.

In Bangladesh, you don't always have to be a career politician in order to become a minister. A career professional (doctor, engineer, teacher, etc) or a businessman can just as easily become a minister if they can prove their loyalty towards the ruling party. This in itself would not have been so much of a problem if the government also thought about giving these people some institutional training on the dos, and more importantly, the don'ts, before putting them at the helm of important ministries. If you taught well in class and if your students liked you as a teacher, it does not necessarily mean that you would also be able to handle yourself well when speaking in public to complex audiences such as foreign diplomats, ministers, politicians, and journalists.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is due in India next month, where she is scheduled to discuss a number of very sensitive long-standing geopolitical issues with her counterpart. We will now have to wait and see if the recent "undiplomatic" comments by the Bangladesh foreign minister have any impact on the ambience and the outcome of the Bangladesh premier's negotiations with our influential neighbour.

Mohammad Al-Masum Molla is deputy chief reporter at The Daily Star.


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