Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Update: Traffic accident in Taiwan

When I first heard that a Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) serviceman had been injured in a road traffic accident in Taiwan, my first thought was: What, another one?

Six weeks before 34-year-old Master Sergeant Lim Chin Hou was allegedly hit by a van on New Year’s Eve in Taiwan, a Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) helicopter pilot died in car crash in the United States. The death of 21-year-old Lieutenant Chee Zhi Hao was reported in a Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) news release dated 16 November 2009.

At the time, I had thought the news release on LTA Chee’s death was unusual as his death did not appear to be training related.

The fatal accident took place on a Sunday after LTA Chee and two RSAF officers visited the National Naval Aviation Museum at Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida. It was a weekend outing with a tragic ending.

The news release on LTA Chee’s death was the second one in 2009 to carry a personal tribute. This appeared to herald a new trend where news releases on SAF deaths would be accompanied by a tribute to the fallen warrior. The last three SAF deaths reported for 2009 all ended with tributes. This was a media statement format not observed by the previous seven deaths reported from January 2009.

I had assumedly – wrongly – that MINDEF might have also adopted a new approach towards overseas deaths where traffic casualties on foreign soil had to be reported.

From the point of view of a casual observer, it was easy to overlook that single sentence that said the Army Aviation Center at Fort Rucker, Alabama, had arranged the visit to the museum. This was a crucial oversight I made and I am indeed sorry my casualty records were not in order. The oversight is upsetting as my friends and I have put in a lot of effort into building up this table.

The Army Aviation Center’s involvement made the weekend museum trip "official". This fact apparently explains the news release on 16 Nov 2009.

The first report on the Taiwan incident was, in my opinion, a textbook case of why prompt disclosure is needed for accidents involving Singaporean military personnel.

The story on the Channel News Asia website was sparse on details, apart from stating that an SAF serviceman had been knocked down on a Taiwanese street. The Straits Times' initial take on the accident wrongly promoted the serviceman to "officer". It does not take much imagination to see how this glitch could trigger anxiety among families who are desperate for information.

As public relations professionals and students of mass communications will tell you, the absence of a name during crisis situations will sometimes result in media speculation and often result in next-of-kin thinking the worst.

If you need an example of Murphy's Law, just look at the August 2009 story in The Straits Times on the triathlon death which saw the 90 cents newspaper use a wrong person's photo in a Page One story...

This is why MINDEF stresses quick and accurate reporting of SAF training incidents.

An RSAF spokesman once said: “Generally, even if no information is released by the air force to the Press, the latter will get the story, perhaps an inaccurate version of what really happened. So my job here is to make sure that the local Press gets the correct story.”

The quote you see above was published in 1971 when MINDEF created a new post – Press Officer in charge of aircraft accidents.

The air force spokesman’s approach to defence information management is as relevant today as it was nearly 40 years ago.[He was technically a Singapore Air Defence Command spokesman as the RSAF was not created till 1975.]

Coming back to the New Year’s Eve traffic accident, I felt that while MINDEF’s Public Affairs Directorate (PAFF) followed standard procedures when it decided the accident did not call for MINDEF’s involvement, stronger public relations guidance would have removed the ambiguity from early media reports.

Ambiguity promotes uncertainty, which in turn stirs up anxiety and fear. Anxiety levels escalate for incidents involving SAF servicemen based overseas because family and friends would be clueless whether their loved one is suffering in silence in a foreign land. Here's where PAFF could have swung into action by making a decisive statement which outlines the extent and scope of support the injured SAF serviceman is receiving.

At the very least, it could have put many parents at ease by naming the victim after the next-of-kin had been informed. By not doing so, scores of parents may remain worried as there's only ONE affected household that will be told the sad news by an SAF liaison officer. Singaporean families without the benefit of such guidance will thus have to endure the cruel and unusual punishment of following media reports without knowing if their loved one is the hapless victim. How would you feel?

One silver lining for the Taiwan accident: The media soon learnt of the injured person's name and reflected this in their reports.

This may not be the case in future incidents and one hopes families will not have to bear undue anxiety if the media takes longer than usual to unmask the victim's identity. Worse could happen if the foreign press named the victim wrongly (see example cited above about 90C using the wrong person's photo to illustrate a story on a triathlon death).

No defence information apparatus can afford slavish observance of standard operating procedures (SOPs). These are drawn up as guidelines and it takes strong leadership and a broad-minded view of things to occasionally break away from the norm, or to advise MINDEF's higher leadership of the pressing need to do so.

Having better understood why MINDEF did not issue a news release on the Taiwan road traffic accident, I maintain my call for PAFF to up its game. Right now, the directorate appears to work in a binary fashion without the flexibility to adapt its information management stance when the occasion demands.

In MSG Lim’s case, the average reader might wonder why MINDEF had talked about the road accident in the United States in November 2009 but kept mum on the 31 December 2009 accident in Taiwan. I certainly did and shot my bolt too soon.

SAF servicemen have died in a number of accidents involving military vehicles.

Prior to the US museum case, the previous death involving an SAF serviceman and a civilian vehicle took place in June 1995 when 19-year-old Private Choy Ying Keong was knocked down by a speeding car at the Fort Road exit of the East Coast Parkway expressway. Had PTE Choy been knocked down on his own time, his death would not have been reported as it had no bearing on the SAF.

The teenage NSF died while on duty supporting the first Army Half Marathon as a road marshal, which is why MINDEF/SAF updated the media on his death. This is the correct approach to defence information management, in my view.

I agree with the point by some netizens that MINDEF/SAF should stick to reporting only training-related incidents. People die for all manner of reasons and it would be out of character for an organization as large as the SAF to report every casualty in its ranks. The SAF has around 55,000 regulars and full-time National Servicemen (NSFs) plus another quarter of a million Operationally-Ready NSmen.

But if the lack of information will unsettle next-of-kin and cast doubts on the SAF’s interest in, and welfare for, its injured servicemen, would this situation call for a break from established SOPs?

I believe it should.

Response to the comments.
Thanks all for taking the time to share your thoughts. Your points of view are appreciated.

I'm trying to red flag a systemic lapse, not be wise after the fact by pointing out that the identity of the accident victim was revealed on the same day of the ambiguous Channel News Asia report, ergo, the SOPs are sound.

I would have issued an NR the moment the Taiwanese media broke the news. Something along the lines of:
1. Media reports in Taiwan today (date) reported that an unnamed Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) serviceman was injured after a hit-and-run accident on (date and place).

2. While the accident is not training-related, MINDEF would like to clarify that the injured serviceman is (rank/name/age).

3. xxx's next-of-kin have been informed and the Singapore Army is extending every assistance to the family. The Army has assigned a Family Liaison Officer to (rank/name)'s family to keep them updated on the serviceman's condition and to expedite their access to the injured serviceman in Taiwan."

A short statement like this would clear the air and spare the Singaporean media all the hearsay from Taiwanese media reports.

re: Errors. Singaporean journalists who have covered MINDEF events will know that when the ministry takes an active interest in a local media story, their attention to detail goes down to the smallest details, including online stories.

A media officer given a watching brief would have insisted that the online version correct the error immediately, as they have done on many occasions previously. PAFF even goes to the extent of asking what is the headline and picture that will accompany the next day's print edition story!

re: Notification of NOKs. This is established protocol. But there will be occasions when the interest of the majority will outweigh a single family's awareness of the situation.

A senior MINDEF officer can make that call for the NR to go out, after repeated attempts to contact the NOK fail. If not, decision gridlock would result.

When air force F-16s collided years ago, PAFF was prepared to issue the NR even though one of the pilot's NOK's was uncontactable. I know because I was the PAFF NSF who typed the NR for my officers to clear it with 2PS (then Teo Ming Kian).


Anonymous said...

Great insight Boeyman. The information management business is really more complex than most know. Like u said, it's logical to stick to officially reporting only training-related incidents. But it's also important to have facts flowing behind the scenes, to prevent incorrect reporting. Wonder what happened btw MINDEF and the 90c paper... Do you think 90c should have waited for the facts to be confirmed before announcing, based on hearsay, that an "SAF officer" has been knocked down? They probably picked the news up from some TW media.

Anonymous said...

The SAF posted a serviceman abroad. If he dies, whatever the reason, it should be reported. I'm of the view that these people are there because of the SAF. If the public affairs team wants to excude 'accidents' that are not training or mission related - then they have to exclude all 'accidents'.

The SAF is a public institution and should behave like one. It is their duty to disclose for the sake of governmental transparency.

David Boey said...

The "officer" description in the ST Online story was a result of poor copy editing by someone who clearly does not know the SAF rank structure. More to the point: Where a Master Sergeant stands in the hierarchy.

After the Taiwanese media had broken the accident story, the local media had to play catch up by rehashing the Taiwanese reports. The Channel New Asia story (please see earlier post) that said an SAF serviceman was injured without giving his name is precisely the sort of situation earlier generations of PAFF officers worked assiduously to avoid.

I don't blame the Army, HQ Starlight, Defence Policy Office, MSD or any of the DSs involved in defence info management because the subject matter experts reside within PAFF. They are paid to give PR advice and one can only hope PAFF's tax-funded higher leadership is up to scratch.

Anonymous said...

Actually i don't know, the 90cent paper could be using "officer" in the same with we would call a police sgt a police officer.
Also since it was off duty and not technically SAF related maybe the 90c paper could have reported it as "a singaporean" was knocked down or something? though since that would lump in even more people, it might worry more people.


edwin said...

In the final analysis, the situation was brought about because Channel News Asia released a premature report without all the details, missing the serviceman's name, creating the situation where parents would worry for their children. Then ST Online screwed up their reporting of the situation and the description of the serviceman involved.

This 'Cruel and Unusual' situation, as you put it, came about entirely because of the fault of the media. Should MINDEF PAFF then be penalized for the mistakes of some other organization? Further, the ST Online release naming the serviceman came out on the same day that the CNA press release was issued (Jan 3rd). I don't see a case for negligence, or a need to change SOPs, on the part of PAFF here.

Let's be fair and put the blame where it is due. Every organization has flaws, but we should not wrongly attribute mistakes to those who do not deserve the condemnation.

I feel that this post should have been calling for higher press standards and the need for journalists to be intellectually rigorous, because when anybody with access to wikipedia should know that a MSG in the SAF is not a commissioned officer, such a mistake on the part of the press is unforgivable.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Edwin above, and feel that the initial new reports from CNA and 90C were probably cribbed from the media in TW (which I would generally not consider fair or balanced).

While the media relations agencies have a duty to provide timely and accurate information, you can't blame them if the media jump the gun and release poorly researched or verified information without their input.

We know that you have no great love for the current leadership of PAFF (most people probably wouldn't, from past accounts), but this is one of the occasions where you might want to think about this a bit more before raking them over the coals...

Hope MSG Lim makes a speedy and full recovery...

Wocelot said...

I think I understand where Edwin is coming from. But, on the other hand, if PAFF had been more proactive in releasing information and updates to the press and concerned individuals., would the media publish a wrong and lacking report??

Surely, the editor and reporter need to take some of the fualt here. But if PAFF "upped its game" and released the information to the media first, would such a thing have occurred? If PAFF had its difficulties doing that, is there some error in their SOP then?? Or that SOP shouldn't be followed in a dead fashon???

I guess, this is what David is trying to drive at ...

edwin said...

Thank you for the clarification about NOK procedures, that was certainly a new tid-bit of information for me :).

W/regards to the 'systemic error': The CNA release was at 1603 SG, while the ST Online article was up before 2328 SG. So the news releases were past or near the end of the working day. I confess that I have little idea of how the news cycle works, but could MINDEF PAFF have been able to get authorization and then update the press in time for the media to correct their mistakes? I would really like to hear more about this!

Again, about the accuracy and diligence of journalists and PAFF-- certainly there is a duty on the part of MINDEF to ensure that sufficient information reaches the media. But in this case, when a MSG is wrongly reported as a commissioned officer, can you really blame PAFF?

Lawrence said...

In relation to the Second Battle of Fallujah (Nov 2004), MG Jim Molan wrote in his book "Running the War in Iraq" (at page 226), the following:

"...To prepare for propaganda attacks from a hostile media, Gen. Casey gave me one very important task. He directed me in no uncertain terms to ensure that there was no more than one-hour turnaround between an allegation appearing in the media and our response being fired back..."

In the past, the Mindef Public Affairs department had set an internal standard of 3 days for a reply to a letter. They have since become selective. They will decide which query is relevant and reply ONLY those deemed relevant.

Lawrence said...

BTW, the MNF-Iraqi normally puts out a media release within 1 hour of an air strike occurring.

Timely response is an important part of media management. If the SAF chooses not to engage the media, the media will run the story from their source without official comment, regardless. Short of a terrorist bomb going off in Singapore, I'm sure that the current set up at Mindef Public Affairs ensures that the SAF cannot and will not respond to the media within 1 to 2 hours.

IMO, as we send more SAF soldiers abroad on missions and exercises, we should be mindful that unfortunate events can and do happen. If it does, I have no confidence that the SAF is prepared to release information in a 'timely' manner. Or if you feel that that my above statement is too harsh, then I would tone it down to say that we are not prepared to respond at the same speed as the foreign military organisations that we are trying so hard to inter-operate with.

edwin said...

Good point Lawrence, but I should point out that MNF-Iraqi was still losing the media war badly, even with the rapid response within the hour--indeed, from 2004 to 2006, the US Military was arguably getting the worst media coverage of the entire war. Is the quest for instantaneous clarification or rebuttal necessarily the goal that MINDEF PAFF should work towards?

Lawrence said...

No responsible organisation provides instantaneous clarifications or rebuttals but... A Big BUT, in the absence of accurate information, more harm/misinformation can arise.

You said: "MNF-Iraq was still losing the media war badly, even with the rapid response within the hour--indeed, from 2004 to 2006, the US Military was arguably getting the worst media coverage of the entire war."

I disagree with what you said due to accuracy and context concerns. If US Commanders had not reacted within the news cycles, there would have been even more negative news (and news reporting is inherently is about 'bad news' and many in main stream media are reflexively anti-war).

Further, I would say that your response reflects poorly on your understanding of the role of modern media organisations like BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera.

One of the many objectives for the MNF-Iraq's quick response was to deny insurgent opportunity to manufacture false propaganda. In that role, they succeed.

You should also note that they denied insurgent talking points by providing fast and accurate information. If you had read more on the topic of 'information operations' before responding, you would know that there were about 60 media outlets represented in the assault force. The US Marines embedded over 90 reporters and camera men who were not the usual main stream media 'blow-ins' to ensure that reporting was fair and accurate. This in itself was a form of filtering. Therefore, I do not believe that your comment had the benefit of context. And your comment is without the benefit of relevant information.

Finally, I would also like to remind you that Singapore deployed our ships and aircraft to Iraq as a coalition member of MNF-Iraq.

Lawrence said...

"Is the quest for instantaneous clarification or rebuttal necessarily the goal that MINDEF PAFF should work towards?"

If I may be direct. What are you talking about? This is not my point and you are setting up a false straw-man argument.

IMHO, your approach is discussion is not productive. My two basic points are as follows:

One, our Mindef Public Affairs is not up-to-speed in their game; and

Two, they should consider improving and setting higher benchmarks than a turn-around of 3 days.

BTW, neither David nor I are asking them to respond within 1 hour (though I note that other organisations are capable of doing so). They need to select their benchmark and honour it rather than selectively responding on the basis of their own internal undeclared criteria.

They also need to function as professionals to ensure that the next time we do something good like after the Dec 2004 Tsunami, we get the positive coverage that we deserve.

BTW, International media will never tolerate the current approach of Mindef Public Affairs. IMO, you are either intentionally talking at cross purposes with me or you are totally misunderstanding the context of my prior comments.

Lawrence said...

Apologies for the typo above, relevant amended text below:

"IMHO, your approach to the discussion is not productive (especially if you are setting up a false straw-man argument). My two basic points are as follows:

One, our Mindef Public Affairs is not up-to-speed in their game; and

Two, they should consider improving and setting higher benchmarks than a turn-around of 3 days. "

Anonymous said...

Reading David's posts on the topic of Blue on Blue, I can say that I have no confidence in the current PAFF leadership.

Fundamentally, we have an operationally ready SAF that is lacking an equally ready PAFF. This sub-optimal situation cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely, if we are to continue to send soldiers overseas for missions.

This year we will see a Singapore naval officer take command of CTF-151 and he needs to be supported (and not hindered by PAFF) in communicating our role in CTF-151 and any incidents that take place.

Please note that we already have two incidents of Singapore ships being hijacked. Our PAFF need to be prepared for any contingency, especially if it involves hostage rescue.

Readers of this blog should note how USN handled the media when their SEALs shot and killed the pirates. The French also conducted a rescue, but in their case a hostage was killed. If we are to assume leadership positions, we must examine our own processes and strive constantly to bring more to the table. PAFF cannot be complacent, if we are to strive to play a bigger role in the world stage.

Anonymous said...

If you read this latest Cyberpioneer story called "When I say jump", they have spelled the name of the CO of the Special Operations Training Support Centre WRONGLY. His name is NOT Maj Simon Tay.

I just don't trust them to get the basics right.

edwin said...

The statement that the situation "could have been worse" if prompt updates were not available is purely speculative, further, it misses the point.

My assertion is that an update or rebuttal within the hour (or any other time scale you might propose) is not the only thing that will determine the message that gets promulgated in the MSM, and thus should not be the only goal that PAFF should strive towards.

Please do not assume ignorance on my part. I am well aware of the embedding efforts made by the US Military and in some areas the embedding effort has succeeded-- in others it has not done so well.

How do you define success in an information campaign? In my view the ultimate determiner of success is whether the people support the actions undertaken by the state. In May 2003 a Gallup poll found that 79% of the American population supported the war. In June 2005 another poll now found that 60% thought that the war should not have been fought.

At the same time, however, support for the military as an organisation and for individuals in the military remains high. So, even as there was increasing opposition to the war, there was far less abuse heaped on the soldiers as compared to Vietnam. This, in my opinion, is the greatest success of embedding reporters and journalists--in humanizing the soldiers that fight.

Btw, I am aware of some of Singapore's efforts-- but how does this fact add to or detract from our discussion about the information campaign for MNF-Iraq and the lessons to be gleaned from it?

Ultimately, we agree on the basics-- that there certainly is room for improvement.