Friday, March 5, 2010

Better than any SAF advertisement

With Work Plan season round the corner, the Defence Ministry's spin doctors are likely to be polishing their arguments for more defence dollars.

A more insightful Public Affairs Directorate (PAFF) at the Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) would argue for less, because it can count on outside voices to tell its side of the story with more impact, literary panache and credibility than any PAFF organ.

Indeed, PAFF's weakened ability to host media embeds will count against the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) in peace and in times of troubled peace. Don't even get me started on whether PAFF can support the SAF if Singapore were to fight a Wallaby or Forging Sabre-type battle scenario north of the border. Simply put: we can't do it and will lose the battle for hearts and minds.

In 1997, then Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong described a newspaper lensman's image of SAF soldiers in action as one that "spoke volumes for the professionalism and reputation of the SAF".

"It did more to improve the SAF's image than any advertising campaign," Mr Lee added.

That picture was taken by a foreign media photographer who operated out of Phnom Penh's airport. He was not part of the media entourage that the SAF escorted to Phnom Penh aboard one of the 122 Squadron C-130s tasked to execute Operation Crimson Angel, the SAF's largest non-combatant evacuation operation. Indeed, the only photographers allowed on that flight were PAFF's own photographers.

There are many reasons why the media may not accompany a military operation. Lack of space is one, safety and security is another common reason/excuse. A defence information professional, say for example a competent Director Public Affairs, must weigh the benefits of capturing the moment for a larger audience, and push his case in situations where the value of publicity merits the presence of a credible voice.

In times of need, media pools are one way in which rival newsrooms close ranks to share resources.

I reproduce the article below, plus Mr Lee's comments published in the 90 cents newspaper on 21 July 1997 in an article titled "Better than any SAF advertisement".

International Herald Tribune, 10 July 1997

"Recently, the SAF mounted an operation to evacuate Singaporeans from Cambodia. The Singaporeans there had organised themselves, worked out emergency procedures, set up communications, gathered at designated places, and calmly evacuated from Phnom Penh. Their SAF training showed. The RSAF flew out 450 people from Phnom Penh on six flights in four C-130s. The operation went smoothly.

"The International Herald Tribune published an Associated Press photograph of the operation. It showed two SAF soldiers, in full battle order, checking two civilians about to board the aircraft, using hand-held metal detectors.

"A third soldier stood alert in the background, near the loading ramp of the C-130, weapon held at the ready. They looked totally competent and well-organised, which they were. The caption was factual: 'Singaporean troops conducting a security check at Phnom Penh airport before evacuating their countrymen'.

"But this single photograph spoke volumes for the professionalism and reputation of the SAF. It did more to improve the SAF's image than any advertising campaign." - Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister (now Singapore PM), Lee Hsien Loong, 20 July 1997

Now let's look at how PIONEER magazine photographed the same event from the safety of the C-130 cargo ramp.

The same event, photographed from a different perspective, resulted in a picture that in my humble opinion is less dramatic than the one published in the IHT.

PAFF realised the importance of media embeds and this reached the high water mark during Operation Flying Eagle when it hosted the largest contingent of local and foreign journalists after the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami.

The capabilities carefully built up since then have been whittled away, due to reasons which many of you will be familiar with.

Today's PAFF seems casualty-averse, going by the flurry of excuses they throw to Singaporean news editors and journalists whenever they ask to accompany SAF operations to places such as Afghanistan. Truth is, ladies and gentlemen, you could die just as easily in Singapore after being knocked down by a rogue diplomat or other assorted life-robbing events.

If roving foreign journalists can produce heart-stirring images that beat any SAF advertising campaign, just think about the impact such images can have on public sentiments if lensmen one day photograph the SAF in a negative light.

Not every operation will unfold the way we would like it to happen. In combat situations, particularly those on occupied territory, the SAF will have to work hard to buff up its international image.

It is true that allowing independent observers to watch your combat forces at work entails some risk to your public image. Red faces may ensue should journalists write about events, issues or observations MINDEF/SAF would rather keep under wraps.

But MINDEF/SAF defence professionals should have the confidence that the SAF will project the "right" international image and maintain the moral high ground.

No less important is having the backbone to roll with the blows. Afterall, a soccer match with a 1:0 result in one's favour is a match won. So is a match with a 6:4 result. You won the match even after letting in some goals.

This sort of mindset and strategic level of public affairs calls for a very high standard of defence information management, which is something beyond the capabilities that the current-day PAFF can deliver.

Are you surprised when high-risk SAF combat deployments to Afghanistan and the Gulf of Aden received paltry coverage and local and international awareness?


goat89 said...

No, I am ABSOLUTELY not surprised at the lack of pics. Hell! The Americans I know of seeing a Singaporean soldier was that infamous pic of a female Marine fainting at Cobra Gold. The pic, on the left, showed the left shoulder of a Singaporean soldier only! There's very little pics from A-stan and Aden. NATO's press has actually done some interviews with Singaporean troops in A-stan, in which I am POSITIVELY sure it is not shown in Singapore's media. A little more positive image and work can help. I really hope they can fix this problem.

David Boey said...

We are possibly the only country with troops in Afghanistan which hasn't sent its own journalists there to write about the situation on the ground.

We've replaced embeds with the instrument of Singaporean bureaucracy: Email interviews. Hassle-free, subject to external clearance by prying eyes each with his/her own point of view.

The sanitised quotes lose the magic of onsite reportage, the colour and human element that can only be pencilled into one's notebook from being there.

I may stand corrected but please name me a journalist/writer who won a Pulitzer from writing up an email interview of a war/OOTW.

Ben Choong said...

Funny. I had a post about's Today's Pics thread, wonder where it went. PAFF needs to know its not about giving what makes them look good but giving what makes it look real. (Posting 6 to 8 pictures once a month, conditional on a major event happening/already happened some time back i.e. AOH, Terrex launch is barely helping SAF relate to the everyday person. And they are missing out on the mere exposure effect!)

USN/USAF/US Army/UK/French/German/Polish/Estonian/Ukrainian/Mexican/"Mexican"/Russian/Iranian/China/Both Koreas/Thailand/Indonesia/Malaysian (OMG, their picture thread in is huge)/Aussie/India/Pakistan/Iraqi Reconstruction Army/ANA have already swamped the international media with images and videos of themselves proudly at work, even if its barely glamourous, regardless of whether it is through international or official channels. (In fact for a while some time back the only pics of SAF in A'stan were taken from Australian MOD sources)

If we are to dominate hearts and minds, its not through a few videos featuring Khai Yan (but I'd love to keep her there though :D) or a sprinkling of belated pictures from past events every few weeks, but many, many images of the SAF doing what it does. Keep it real, PAFF! I'm sure they can be creative enough to take enough pics, and many of them, without compromising on security. People do notice, pay attention, and develop attitudes. Don't be afraid to roll up your sleeves and get dirty fighting wrong impressions! (hey, isn't that what PAFF is about anyway?) Indeed, 6-4 is always a more exciting and memorable match than a 1-0 :)

btw my schoolmate just got an email invite from school to MINDEF's PAFF recruitment talk (think cuz she's a comms major). When she opened it the attached image (which made up the entire email other than the header) was missing :/

edwin said...

I was just thinking about the very same issue! I'm not sure if you follow Michael Yon, but most of his coverage of Afghanistan is pretty good. Most recently, however, in an attack on a bridge in Kandahar, he failed to get his facts right, and publicly called for the resignation of the Task Force commander there. After being updated on the situation, he continued to lay blame on innocent parties, casting aspersions about the military leadership and reducing trust in the mission, as well as creating dissension between the coalition forces deployed. One single journalist, given more or less uncontrolled access, came to his own hasty and spurious conclusions, posted it on facebook, and caused a whole lot of trouble, tying up at least 2 Generals (a BG and an MG) for a few days.

Media coverage is a double edged sword, and if we can't spare the people to babysit the media correspondents, is it worth all the good press in the world when one single unsupervised, errant journalist can destroy all the goodwill created?

edwin said...

I guess my main question is: Who holds journalists accountable?

Ben Choong said...

that's where a strong PAFF comes it, doesn't it? You cannot control what journalists say (they are accountable for themselves), so there's a lot of info management that needs to be done on PAFF's part. It takes effort, but people appreciate it.

anyway I doubt the PAFF would end up throwing up exposés of such a nature. There are other entities in the SAF to keep people in check. the thing is they are not even publishing enough.

Anonymous said...

why isn't there more openness and news of the fiascos at the casino????? more transparency to build goodwill????

Anonymous said...

I share the same view that media is King when it comes to spreading the message of military deterrence. How else can you subject your potential enemy to a constant reminder of SAF's capibility than to 'advertise' your military assets and the operational readiness of your soldiers. These advertisements also help to provide peace and security assurances S'poreans and foreign investors. Nonetheless, I was very pleased that on the day it was announced that a terrorist hit may take place in the Straits of Malacca, Media Corps ran a video of Forging Sabre (I think). I believe the timing of the video release was not a coincidence. The message it was delivering was clear to all.