The Importance of Good Press Releases

Earlier today, I read about the mass resignations from the Reform Party. The exodus began with nine members resigning from the Party, as reported by The Straits Times. The Reform Party released this press statement in response. Tony Tan and Hazel Poa released this press statement to clarify two issues. As of the time of writing, twenty members, including the original nine, have left the party. One of them, Gilbert Goh, is now a member of the National Solidarity Party.

Going through the Reform Party’s press release, I wonder if the Reform Party needs to take a good, hard look at itself. The press release is disappointing: it is difficult to read at best, and at worst is highly suggestive of some undesirable personality traits.

Purpose

The purpose of a press release is to communicate a message. This communication should be clear and concise, containing every scrap of information necessary, and not one bit more. The press release fails to follow this principle. In the opening sections of the press release, Secretary-General Kenneth Jeyaretnam wrote about the Reform Party’s outreach efforts. He dedicated three paragraphs describing the RP’s walkabout team’s efforts, the establishment of a women’s wing and blog, the party’s first podcast, publicising a joint walkabout with the Singapore People’s Party on Sunday and mentioning that a group of RP members will attend the PKMS’ ’50 year Jubilee party’. Only then does Jeyaratnam go into detail about the events that led to the mass resignation.

Those three paragraphs are unnecessary. At best, this is a very poor attempt at damage control and convincing the public that the RP is still a contender in the political arena. At worst, it looks like self-aggrandisation, an attempt to massage an ego in the face of a setback. Cynic that I am, it’s not difficult to guess which interpretation I’d favour, especially in light of future analysis.

Confrontation and confusion

In the Straits Times report, the nine former members cited ‘differences of opinion’ as the reason they left, adding that they tried to reach a resolution but failed. In response, Jeyaretnam had this to say:

According to the report in Main Stream Media (sic) this group have cited personal differences as a reason for resigning. But if that were the case why would they not come to the mediation table? The timing of this departure, its highly co-ordinated and planned manner and the way the individuals then went to the Press, hardly seems an appropriate response to personal incompatibility.
It has the hallmark of an action designed to do maximum damage to The Reform Party and gain maximum publicity for the political careers of the individuals involved.

Jeyaretnam’s reply is essentially a badly worded confrontation, followed by his version of events. According to Jeyaretnam, the Central Executive Committee held a meeting, Jeyaretnam excluded, with ‘potential candidates’ (I’m assuming he meant ‘potential candidates for the election’). Two of them were barred from entry, and wrote letters of complaint about being barred – and mentioned that a CEC member received an ang pao, a red packet containing money, from two of the candidates. (This was later revealed to be a Chinese New Year gift to the member’s children.) Jeyaretnam said that he recommended that ‘the Party deal with the complaint and answer the questions raised’. However, the CEC ‘refused to answer the complaints or to hold an enquiry.’ This sentence was followed by ‘The candidates and 4 CEC members resigned.’

From the RP’s press release, it seems as if the mass resignation was triggered by the fallout from this meeting. But this is unlikely. A bad meeting alone does not usually result in several people resigning from the organisation, especially people with a stake in the party – specifically, the potential election candidates. The meeting feels like the climax of a conflict within the party. The stakeholders must have felt that the benefits of leaving the Party outweighs the cost of doing so, which implies that they have been embroiled in what they felt was an unbearable situation for a period of time.

At this point, things become murky. Poa said that the group attempted to work things out, but failed. Jeyaretnam seems to be saying that the nine did not try for a compromise. But instead of elaborating on this, the press release accuses the group of attempting to damage the RP’s reputation and gain publicity for their own political careers. I sense melodrama here: leaving the RP would not automatically lead to positive publicity, and if the nine really wanted to damage the RP, they would have left the party as soon as the elections were confirmed. Even if Jeyaretnam’s accusations were true, such accusations make him and the Party look like they are being petty. A calm, measured response would have been better.

The Reform Party effectively chose confrontation over clarity. It cast aspersions on the people who resigned instead of providing the whole picture. I do not know if the nine had attempted to resolve their problems before the meeting, or after – the Straits Times report, and Tan and Poa’s press release, was unclear about this. Jeyaratnam says that attempts at conflict resolution did not take place at all, but Tan and Poa did not refute this claim. I cannot tell for sure what really happened.

This confusion can be traced to both party’s refusal to address each other’s point on conflict resolution – assuming Poa and Jeyaratnam noticed this. Poa said that the group had attempted conflict resolution in the Straits Times, but did not say when that happened. Jeyaretnam could have assumed that she was talking about the meeting in question, when she could have been referring to a longer-term conflict within the party. Alternatively, the nine really did not attempt conflict resolution, and Poa kept quiet because it did not happen. However, the question Jeyaretnam raised can be interpreted as a set-up for his accusations instead of a genuine attempt at calling Poa out on this point, and Poa might have felt that it was pointless to clarify that because it wasn’t clear enough. The statements ‘The CEC refused to answer the complaints or to hold an enquiry. The candidates and 4 CEC members resigned.’ could be seen either as the nine refusing to resolve their conflicts, or the nine believing that further attempts at resolving a deeper, unreported conflict would be pointless. That’s even assuming the events occurred as reported.

Jeyaretnam should have stuck to the facts. He should have been clearer, and ditched the rhetorical statement in favour of something like ‘The nine did not attempt to resolve their conflicts’. The fact that the press statement appeared to be written in three parts, with the front and back by Jeyaretnam and the middle by someone else (the sudden shift from ‘I’ to ‘the SG’ and back is a suspicious sign), merely makes things more confusing.

Other questions arise from the press release. During the meeting with the candidates, Jeyaretnam was not present – and no explanation was given. The purpose of the meeting was not declared. ‘For reasons that are not clear’, two of the candidates were barred from the meeting. There was no elaboration about the CEC’s refusal to address the complaints. Such information would have provided more context in which to interpret the series of events, especially if this context suggested a backdrop of personal conflicts.

Towards clarity

There are two sticking points in this issue. The first is whether or not the Party and the nine former members attempted to reach a compromise. Poa says they did, Jeyaretnam disagrees. The press releases did not clarify this issue. Someone is lying, or someone is confused. Or both. Or there is just poor communication all around. The most important tool of leadership is communication: the ability to communicate intent, purpose, and messages clearly. The failure to resolve this issue suggests poor communication ability – more so for the RP than for Tan and Poa, given Jeyaretnam’s press release.

The second is that the Party has presented a poor public image. The majority of the press statement is dedicated to publicising the RP’s latest efforts, criticising the nine former members, explaining the vision of the party, contrasting said vision with the views of some undisclosed and skimpily-explained minority, and self-affirmation about the Reform Party’s relevance and potency.

The most charitable interpretation is that Jeyaretnam is attempting damage control, to fix whatever damage he perceived to the RP’s reputation. Unfortunately, it backfired – the best form of damage control is transparency and clarity, which means writing a press release that addresses every point, handles only the facts surrounding the incident, and refusing to throw mud at the nine who resigned. The way the press release is written instead smacks of mental masturbation: it reads like Jeyaretnam attempting to increase his self-esteem by telling everybody about what the party (and he) did, and by bringing others low through accusations of ill-will. It feels like the rationalisation of a man who cannot accept people having differences of opinion with him, and so makes them look conniving and unreasonable to make himself feel good. Clearly, this press release can be interpreted in that light, and I do not think Jeyaretnam wishes to be seen that way.

Personally, I think the Reform Party needs a good copywriter, at the very least. Without the ability to communicate clearly, it is very easy for the Reform Party, and Jeyaretnam, to expose itself to unfounded and unwanted criticism. It is also equally easy for Jeyaretnam, and by extension the Party, to be seen and painted in a negative light by a slew of skeptics and cynics.

And I count myself amongst them.