Saturday, September 5, 2009

Raising the bar at the Army Open House

[As I write this, I've yet to visit AOH 2009. I'm on duty this weekend as my current place will open in the months ahead. Will pen my thoughts on AOH 2009 in due course. HQ SCE has done pretty well too, I reckon]

The amount of publicity the 90 cents paper devoted to Army Open House (AOH) 2004 stands as an example of the value of a well-timed defence media relations effort.

The week-long blitz remains unsurpassed to this day - which is a point of pride for those of us involved in the publicity drive .

Looking back at the pile of AOH newspaper clippings brings to mind the amount of work that the Army Information Centre (AIC) and Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) Public Affairs invested to promote the event. Their investment paid handsome dividends in more ways than one (please fast forward to concluding paragraphs if too lazy to read).

That year's event was organised by a team led by Brigadier-General Bernard Tan. Those who've met him would probably find him an articulate, charismatic and likeable officer. As Chief Armour Officer, BG Tan (his dad was also an Armour officer) was determined that Headquarters Armour bring the Army's engagement with Singaporeans and defence observers to a new level.

HQ Armour's AOH 2004 Exco performed its task brilliantly.

The fact that subsequent Army Open House events followed the template set by AOH 2004 five years on speaks volumes of their success in raising the bar.

Among their ideas:

1. Themed zones: BG Tan felt that the public would have a better grasp of equipment, capabilities and the Singapore Army's ethos if these were throughfully displayed in several zones. The easy way out would have been to order participating units to sprawl their armaments within a defined piece of real estate, and set up information boards telling people what they were loooking at.

AOH 2004 wanted something better.

Hence the theme park concept. It came complete with a Main Street Parade and the ground-breaking live-firing display in the SAFTI live-firing area. The experience was titled the "Live-firing Safari". This idea was subsequently expanded into the various "worlds" we see at the AOH.

2. Brand ambassadors: Everyone detailed for duty at AOH 2004 would recall that they had to sit through a briefing and role-playing sessions that taught them how to engage and interact with the public.

This move helped SAF servicemen deliver a high standard of service. The effort resulted in knowledgeable and self-confident servicemen who were taught to understand, emphatise with and appreciate how a visitor to the event might want to be treated.

Visitors went home with positive impressions of the Singapore Army, Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and defence eco-system after these brand ambassadors - many of whom were auntie-killers : ) - were let loose on the unsuspecting public.

3. Queue lines: BG Tan's team implemented a theme park concept that helped people in the queue know how long it would take to reach the front of the line just by looking at markings beside the queue line.

The AOH 2004 Exco was conscious of the transport woes that dogged the Navy Open House earlier. Not only did they indent a large number of buses, the AOH 2004 Exco commanded a strategic reserve of buses which they could mobilise, and timed the bus routes and estimated boarding/debussing times. The result: hassle-free transport.

4. Info boards: BG Tan wanted placards and information board calibrated such that anyone with a Secondary Two level of education would understand the information presented. During the vetting process, he threw out jargon and made officers rewrite text that was clumsily drafted. It was a pain, but everyone took the vetting process in the right spirit.

5. Media relations: The Exco wanted a week-long blitz in the 90 cents newspaper ahead of the weekend when the event would be open to the public.

They got hits everyday, save Friday, as veteran Singapore politician Mr Goh Chok Tong announced he was stepping down as PM on Thursday 2 Sept 2004. A story on the main street parade display was canned as the 90 cents paper scrambled to make space for that announcement.

Here's the coverage the AOH 2004 team scored in The Straits Times:

Monday 30 Aug: Army open house to have live firing display
Tuesday 31 Aug: SUVs join military ranks
Wednesday 1 Sept: SAF gets new battlefield radars, Home One Photo of Arthur.
Thursday 2 Sept: Try your hand at shooting down mock terrorists, Pg 1 photo with Prime News story
Thursday 2 Sept: Future soldiers to fight better with less
Friday 3 Sept: -
Saturday 4 Sept: New light and lethal Matador does job of two
Saturday 4 Sept: Army Open House 2004 - 10 things to see and do. Full page, full colour with info box.

The amount of coverage that the Army Information Centre and MINDEF PAFF cornered would probably do any public relations company proud.

It came about because BG Tan and Colonel Bernard Toh, then Director Public Affairs at MINDEF, and AIC, decided to engage the 90 cents paper weeks before AOH 2004.

They did so by talking to, cultivating and hearing journalists' views on what would work, and what wouldn't pass muster with the Newsdesk. COL Bernard Lim from AIC was also instrumental in making sure I didn't drop the ball.

The AOH 2004 Exco even issued me a pass to facilitate my entry to their meetings at SAFTI MI.

My personal contribution to the event was spotting several typos in the AOH 2004 map - among other things, Pasir Laba was spelt as Pasir Labar - and tightening the text of the handouts and map.

I also threw in several suggestions on what people might like to see.

One suggestion that matched what the Combat Engineers had in mind was this: Rather that have the M-728 Combat Engineer Vehicle (CEV) as a static exhibit, we had it demonstrate its Pearson Engineering Track Width Mine Plough by raking up the ground. This was a first for HQ SCE and I think it was a crowd-pleaser.

The short of it all is that defence media relations hinges very much on far-sighted personalities.

The trust built up between the 90 cents paper and MINDEF PAFF in 2004, over the course of various SAF events, helped both sides build a sense of rapport, understanding and a spirit of give-and-take.

Shortly after the event, the rapport we built proved crucial in a way that none of us imagined.

In December 2004, the Boxing Day tsunami struck.

MINDEF Public Affairs and AIC were to face their biggest media relations challenge ever with the launch of tsunami relief missions to Indonesia and Thailand under Operation Flying Eagle.

The friendship and goodwill forged many months before that calamity paid off.

This was capped by the book on Operation Flying Eagle - produced within two months so it could be given out to OFE participants on SAF Day 2005 - which was a joint effort between the usual suspects who were behind the AOH 2004 publicity.

No comments: