What you need to know
The slick re-launch of Pasuya Yao's mayoral campaign drips with spin and begs the question: Can voters really complain when they vote on style over substance?
Since securing the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)’s nomination to be its Taipei mayoral candidate, Pasuya Yao (姚文智) has hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons, beginning with an ill-staged effort to appeal to younger voters by trotting out his cat, Togi, for a photo call and peaking with a call for members of his own party to resign if they failed to declare loyalty to him over his incumbent rival Ko Wen-je (柯文哲).
Then, less than 100 days before voters hit the polls, Yao decided to reboot his campaign, asking voters for forgiveness and the energy to re-familiarize themselves with “the real” Pasuya Yao.
The first thing that potential voters (or more precisely, eagle-eyed netizens) noticed following the relaunch of his campaign was that Yao’s writing style had changed.
This stylistic transition led observers to speculate that the reboot of Yao’s campaign and the Facebook page that fronts it were actually executed by Yao Jen-to (姚人多) – President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) former deputy secretary-general and the newly appointed vice chairman and secretary-general of the Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF).
After the reboot, it’s hard not to notice Yao Jen-to’s fingers all over Pasuya Yao’s page – from the language, to the topics and even image choice – an artist has been at work, spinning his magic.
To be honest, I don't like the idea of a politician having a social media publicist or spin-doctor, after all, they are the first line of defense against any political crisis, and after weathering the storm, even though some people will point out that the words used in a discussion are one thing, and the integrity of the candidate is another, netizens will have already decided that it’s “time to think seriously about who to vote for.”
But we should think seriously about why the simple act of changing your spin-doctor or publicist can have such a huge impact – or about, whether or not their words dictate our votes?
An artist sketch replicating the error made by Pasuya Yao (far right) in holding his pet cat. The text reads: How not to cradle a cat – "Let it lay back on your forearm," "Let it perch on to your shoulder," "Let it hunker in your arms" or "Hold its legs like it’s a machine gun."
The problems of voting for spin
Regardless of whether it’s Yao Jen-to or Magneto playing the role of puppet-master, the Pasuya Yao of today is a far cry from the awkward being who held a cat like a machine gun at the end of July, yet they are surely still made up of the same genes and anatomic composition.
Recall Tsai Ing-wen's election campaign: reams of campaign posts written with perfect, heart-warming, forward-thinking, click-bait, precision; all churned out by Yao Jen-to. However, after theses posts helped the DPP win the support of 6.89 million Taiwanese voters, people began to slowly realize that the person in the photos with the sunshine smile was not the same person posting on the DPP page. The words posted came neither from the candidate’s mouth nor hands, and a vast majority of the promises made within them have not been implemented.
This led people to leave messages under the old articles, complaining that they were tricked. Even so, the people checking those comments and criticisms are just other publicists or spin-doctors, and never the politicians themselves.
Unfortunately, even if you staked it out a local market you would still find it difficult to catch a glimpse of a candidate in person, so unless you are a politics journalist following the candidate around, you will only know what they say, think or do, from reports in the media, spun social media posts – or even better, meeting transcripts.
Armed with this patchy set of information, people then project their own image of a candidate, for example as someone that likes to camp out at airports (Pasuya Yao said earlier in his campaign that if he cannot have Songshan airport removed during his term he would camp out at the airport in a tent) or who loves dressing up their cats.
Public figures no longer need to go into the operating room and undergo cosmetic surgery, oftentimes, all they need do is change their social media publicist or spin-doctor, and they can completely reverse their public image.
Carefully calculating the candidate’s every word
Obviously, this situation is not unique to Taiwan. Tony Blair, the former UK Prime Minister from 1997 to 2007, was very familiar with such tactics, and his close friend and spokesperson, Alastair Campbell, who later became the Labour Party’s Director of Communications, designed a system called OST (Objective, Strategy, Tactics), which was used to meticulously plan all of Blair's speeches and media exposure, so that all the information built toward the same goal, which is also why they allowed the Simpsons to air an episode with Blair in 2003 during the period when the coalition started their attack on Iraq.
Even in this short conversation, everything said in the dialogue with the Simpsons, from the mention of Blair’s birthplace in Edinburgh to the use of the then popular slang term ‘Smashing,’ was meticulously calculated.
In the United States, former President Barack Obama was also a master of the public relations game. The politically correct postings on Twitter, to comedy show appearances and even videos produced in cooperation with new media producers like Buzzfeed – all deliberate public relations efforts. Having said that, in the last presidential elections, Americans all seemed to think of this kind of coordination as a problem, so when Hillary Clinton used the same public relations tactics, she ended up losing the vote, whereas Donald Trump, the man who sat on the toilet tweeting complete nonsense, won.
Of course, it is not only Pasuya Yao who has had help, for those who have worked in the public relations field it was hard not to notice that the team behind Ko Wen-je were also very deliberate with their strategy. Playing on his unique traits in deftly deployed speeches, Ko's PR team soon had the press and public eating out of their hands.
In theory, Ting Shou-chung (丁守中) should really be doing the same thing, but perhaps because he has no party or administrative resources, everything we have heard so far appears to have come straight from the horse's mouth.
But putting aside his political standpoint, he should at least be regarded as the most real and sincere candidate on the stage. However, once the election reaches the 11th hour, and troops are deployed, the messages released by his team will inevitably undergo some "spinning" and his campaign will finally fall in line with the rest of them.
Ultimately, the goal of running in an election (for most candidates) is to get elected, not to play second fiddle, so as long as the candidates can continue deflecting the disputes and challenges from the media and public sufficiently until the Nov. 24 election date, regardless of whether they try to dodge or spin, someone always gets elected, and the only certain outcome is that netizens will turn them into an internet meme.
This article originally appeared on the Chinese-language Taiwan edition of The News Lens. The original can be found here.
Translator: Zeke Li
Editor: David Green (@DavidPeterGreen)
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