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Loose Lips Sink Trips

Editorial: New Year's Eve Statements Issued by Bali Tourism Official Demonstrate a Lack of Professionalism in the Island's Marketing.

(1/4/2010) It was the email heard round the world.

On December 31, 2009, Al Purwa, in his capacity as the Public Relations Director of the Bali Tourism Board sent a circular email advising the following: "The Governor of Bali Mr. Mangku Pastika wishes to share a message to all of us: 'There is an indication of an attack to Bali tonight.' but please don't be panic, but put your security system to full alert."

Purwa, who is the Chairman of the Bali Chapter of the Indonesian Association of Travel Agents (ASITA), also encouraged those receiving his message to "forward to all of your friends and colleagues."

And forward it, they did.

Within hours the email was prominent in Google News and a hot topic with various international media, including CNN, Sky Channel, BBN, CBS and Sky Channel. The email was also quoted by both the U.S. Embassy and British Embassy in their on-line travel advice for Indonesia. Spreading the word even further, Twitter and Facebook burned bright repeating the Tourism Board's warning to New Year's revelers in Bali, no doubt prompting some to cancel or curtail their plans for lavish spending on entertainment at one of Bali's many nightspots.

With the dawn of the New Year and reports confirming no terrorist activities in Bali to usher in the New Year, other reports began to surface on the international media, some quoting Putu Suardika, the spokesman for the office of the Governor of Bali, denying that Pastika had ever made such a statement. Reuters quoted Suardika, saying: "No, he (the Governor) never said that, either in writing or verbally. We never put out any warning, either written or spoken."

Police in Bali also discounted the Bali Tourism Board's warning. Gde Sugianyar, a spokesman for the Bali police, said his office was not aware of such a threat and "always tried to ensure security was as tight as possible."

One Security office from an Embassy confided that the "indication" of an imminent attack mention in the Tourism Board email did not mesh with any current intelligence on terrorist threats for Bali.

Similarly, the Head of the elite ant-terrorist Detachment 88 attached to National Police Headquarters, Brigadier General Tito Karnavian, said he had no idea of where the indication of an attack had originated and doubted its accuracy. Said Karnavian: "I don't know where this information came from. What's clear, it's not from us (Detachment 88). This information is not accurate and probably not correct."

What Went Wrong?

It's hard to conceive of any possible explanation for such a gross miscommunication. Either the Governor made such a statement or Purwa must explain on behalf of the Bali Tourism Authority how he could circulate a direct quote of the governor that Pastika's office absolutely refutes.

On a more basic level, even if the governor had made such a statement, the email sent, despite its request not to panic, was so inexpertly crafted that it had the very opposite effect.

If any lesson can be extracted from this entire mess, is that in the future, greater care must be taken in drafting official statements on behalf of Bali tourism; the facts must be checked and rechecked; and the authorization for publication should be signed off by people demonstrating greater communication acumen than that displayed in the subject email sent on New Year's eve.

A failure to grasp these lesson will continue to cost Bali both its reputation and business.

And, less we forget, the object of terrorism, like its name implies, is to create fear and terror. Spreading unsubstantiated innuendo, such as was the case with the BTB pronouncement, has made the organization charged with promoting Bali tourism an unwitting agent of terror.

Bali cannot allow this highly embarrassing incident to merely fade into oblivion. Both the governor and the Bali Tourism Board should conduct a rigorous review to see how this happened and ensure it won't happen again in the future. Only this will begin to restore the public trust which has been so badly damaged by this needless "false alarm."