Wednesday, 4 July 2007

When honesty is the best policy

From The Korea Herald, Thursday 5th July, 2007

By Chris Gelken and Robert Neff

After initially insisting "the published allegations are unfounded" and demanding a retraction, the Philippine mission to Seoul has admitted Manila's top diplomat here was in fact stopped by store security personnel at the Post Exchange (PX) on the Yongsan U.S. military base and accused of shoplifting.
Ambassador Susan Castrence was responding to an article published in The Korea Herald on June 18 that reported a high-ranking Philippine diplomat had allegedly shoplifted from the American military base in Seoul.
The story was picked up by media in Manila, and on June 28 the Philippine Star reported, "A Filipino diplomat, who asked not to be named, said the report (in The Korea Herald) was 'fabricated' and was part of a campaign to put the Philippine Embassy and officials of the diplomatic mission in a bad light."
However, on June 29, other media outlets printed extracts from a press release in which Ambassador Castrence admitted an incident took place. The press release was limited to Philippine media outlets and was not copied to The Korea Herald. Castrence explained, "At that time we were really very preoccupied with visits from VIPs from the Philippines, and actually I felt bad toward The Korea Herald because I thought you should have contacted me first before printing that article."
The reports in Manila also quoted sources from the Philippine Foreign Affairs Ministry as saying they were considering possible legal action against The Korea Herald.
According to her press statement, in November 2006 she went into the PX to shop for Christmas presents for her staff and grandchild.
She had taken with her a karaoke microphone chip (that she said was purchased earlier at the PX) to use as a reference for a further purchase. After examining another chip at the store, Castrence decided against a purchase "because it did not contain children's songs." She returned the original chip to her bag.
"This must have been the moment caught by the camera which gave the impression of shoplifting," the statement read.
The statement continued to say the ambassador then went to the store's perfume department, where she tried some Gucci perfume but found it too expensive and returned it to the counter. As Castrence attempted to leave the store she was stopped by security officers who inspected her bag and found the chip she had brought with her.
Responding to the original article and the subsequent reports in the Philippines, Castrence told senior editors of The Korea Herald in an interview: "This story really broke my heart. I started working when I was 18 years old, and served for 46 years with no blemish on my record."
Castrence criticized The Korea Herald for failing to check the facts before publishing the story: "You should have talked to me before you published that article. I am supposedly a very accessible person here. If you had talked to me, as I would have expected a reporter would do before publishing such a damaging story, I would have appreciated that. But, as far as I am concerned, there was no effort to reach me."
In fact, The Korea Herald made repeated attempts to get a statement from embassy officials.
When Consul Juan Dayang, who acts as the public affairs officer for the embassy, was first approached for a statement, he denied any knowledge of the incident. Castrence later admitted to The Korea Herald that despite the seriousness of the incident, she did not report it or discuss it with any of her senior staff.
"Well, it was such an unpleasant experience to have been mistaken for doing something like that. I am a very private person," she said. "Because that case as far as I know is closed, so what is the purpose for me to even talk about something that was very unpleasant?"
To make matters worse, Consul Dayang reportedly did not inform Castrence that the media were making inquiries.
"Jed (Dayang) did not let me know that you had called him, because he believed it was a rumor and should not be dignified with a response, and I believe he did not want me bothered with that," Castrence said.
Castrence now acknowledges that perhaps Dayang was negligent in not bringing the issue to her attention. "I told him that if there is a call like that, you should have told me, but his judgment at that time was not in the right direction. So the article came as a complete surprise to me."
Apparently her staff members were not the only ones kept uninformed. Days after the incident first appeared in The Korea Herald, ABS-CBN news in the Philippines reported Claro Cristobal, spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs, as insisting, "Susan Castrence was definitely not the (shoplifting) suspect."
The ambassador said she contacted Cristobal, who denied making the statement. Castrence accused the reporter in the Philippines of "making a mistake and not doing her homework."
The ambassador repeated that it was all a terrible mistake, and as far as she is concerned, the case is closed.
Vice Consul Arnel G. Talisayon, who sat in on the interview, supported the ambassador's assertion: "The incident took place at Yongsan. The ambassador was able to explain her side to the officer who apprehended her before she was about to leave."
But the incident does not appear to have been as simple as the ambassador stated. The Provost Marshal's record indicates that on Nov. 28, 2006, Castrence was suspected of shoplifting a karaoke microphone chip and a bottle of Gucci perfume worth $118.60.
When asked why the authorities would fill out a shoplifting report if the incident was in fact closed on the spot, Castrence declined to offer any further information.
Concluding the interview, The Korea Herald informed the ambassador that Consul Dayang had full knowledge that an article was being prepared five full days before publication, but no attempt was made to respond to queries made by the reporter or contact the newspaper editors.
"He did not give an inkling at all that you had spoken to him, and he didn't know about the incident. So when he said he had no knowledge, it was true," Castrence said.
Public relations crisis management experts would certainly have advised the embassy to "come clean" immediately if they were aware that media interest was being shown in the incident, even if, as Castrence asserts, it was all a mistake. Complete honesty, they say, is always the best policy.
When asked why the matter was handled in such a shoddy and unprofessional manner, the ambassador said: "That is your opinion. We thought we were doing the right thing."

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