Friday, September 4, 2009

Third Generation information warriors

HANDS up those of you who remember some of the points made by Singapore’s Chief of Army in August 2007 in conjunction with that year’s Army Open House.

Now ask yourself if you remember the incident where a full-time National Serviceman ran away from his camp with an assault rifle and ammunition.

It’s a safe bet that the second incident will trigger a better recall rate than the first, though they both took place around the sametime.

As the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) transforms itself into a Third Generation fighting force, so too must the Ministry of Defence’s Public Affairs Department up its game – because bad news has a long lifespan.

And while the large crowds expected at today’s Army Open House (held from 3 to 7 September 2009 at Pasir Laba Camp) testifies to Mindef’s Public Affairs machinery’s ability to excite the masses , a 3rd Gen PR apparatus must strive for greater things.

These include the ability to support the SAF’s information management needs during operations, and be regarded by Singaporeans as a credible first stop for information during a crisis.

Above all, Mindef’s Public Affairs Department must make up for lost time because the military operated without a public affairs arm for more than 10 years.

The trust that Mindef failed to cultivate during those years probably accounts for lingering suspicions of cover-ups in SAF mishaps.

From the time the SAF was formed till March 1980, when Mindef’s Public AffairsDepartment was set up, more than 50 SAF-related deaths and suicides were reported in The Straits Times.

Without a proactive PR set up to tell the SAF’s story, Singaporeans gravitated towards whatever the rumour mill churned out.

As many NS enlistees in the 1970s are fathers to today’s cohorts of NSF, it is easy to see how negative impressions from yesteryear have cascaded to 3rd Gen soldiers.

Can you blame the skeptics?

The challenge of defence information management is compounded by the fact that defence organizations tend to be institutionally averse to openness. This is best summed up by the adage: “The essence of successful warfare is secrecy. The essence of successful journalism is publicity.”

Some SAF officers are temperamentally unsuited for media relations work. Their obsession with secrecy, mistrust of the media and insensitivity to news deadlines are common bugbears for journalists who cover defence.

The SAF, being a citizen’s army, must work hard to overcome such institutional resistance.

Mindef’s decision to appoint a “press officer in charge of aircraft accidents” in August 1971 was a tacit admission of the importance of news management. That post was held by Group Captain Keith Martin, then on loan to the SAF from the Royal Australian Air Force.

It was only in August 1989 that Mindef first appointed a Director of Public Affairs – a post held by eight Colonels since then.

The first Director Public Affairs/Mindef Spokesman was Colonel Kwan Yue Yeong, who incidentally was the SAF's first Sword of Honour winner.

Building on the outreach effort set by COL Kwan, it was during the tenure of the second DPA, Colonel Ramachandran Menon, that Mindef made proactive efforts to reach out to the foreign media from 1991. It did so by inviting foreign journalists for visits, mailing them news releases and slides of SAF events (no digital images in those days). This outreach effort - quite a bold step in the pre-Internet era - rewarded the SAF with a strong presence in many defence publications and formed an important tool in defence diplomacy and deterrence.

Eight DPAs on, the post is still held by an officer of Colonel rank. In the meantime, the job scope has expanded vastly, with the proliferation not just of local newspapers and media channels (look at the growth in the number of newspapers, TV and radio stations), as well as new media like Internet and social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

The creation of two deputy DPA positions is positive, as it reflects the vast increase in job scope, responsibility and Mindef's outreach efforts using non-traditional media sources, like video clips uploaded on Youtube.

Shortcomings in Mindef PR’s machinery were exposed during the 2005 tsunami relief operation in Indonesia and Thailand. Civilian media relations officers (MROs) embedded aboard a navy ship struggled to adapt to life aboard a warship while performing their information management duties. (The MROs were changed three times during my embed aboard RSS Endurance off Indonesia.) Two years after that operation, every civilian MRO had quit, taking with them precious operational experience and institutional memory.

As Mindef makes up for lost time, it must keep an eye on staff retention and deploying officers hardened to the rigours of military operations.

Having a citizen’s army (where almost everyone knows something about the SAF), frequency of overseas training (which foreigners can see) and an internet savvy population make it imperative that Mindef’s information management cycle moves at a decisivepace.

Mindef has much to gain when the Singapore media is first to report on defence developments.

There is no better mouthpiece, so to speak, than print or broadcast media Singaporeans are familiar with – and trust.

The alternative: Relinquishing the initiative to foreign publications and letting them set the agenda. The fact that there are more defence publications based in Kuala Lumpur (including Southeast Asia’s oldest defence journal) and Jakarta underlines why Mindef needs to be more generous with defence news.

The deterrent value of the 3rd Gen SAF will be enhanced with a PR apparatus that is ready to support SAF operations. Such an apparatus would signal to outside observers that the SAF is serious about telling its side of the story, and packs the wherewithal to bring journalists to crisis areas.

Mindef Public Affairs needs information warriors to fight its battles. Truth, after all, is the first casualty in war.

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