Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Defence Media Relations: Picking the date for your event

Hot dates
Before you pick a date for that special defence news announcement, ensure that your media relations plan is robust enough to cope with the unexpected.

Surprise attacks are not confined to the physical battlespace and can unhinge even the most well-planned defence information operations plan.

On 1 April 1975, the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) came to life after the Singapore Air Defence Command was renamed. Singapore’s airpower had matured. Its order of battle included Hawker Hunter fighter jets, A-4S Skyhawk fighter-bombers, long-range Bloodhound surface-to-air missiles and an air defence radar unit inherited from Britain's Royal Air Force. This was potent stuff.

Just two days later, South Vietnamese pilots made a daring intrusion into Singapore air space. It was the largest air intrusion in Singapore’s history as 56 passengers and crew flew into Singapore unannounced crammed in a C-130A Hercules medium lift tactical transport.

The aerial intruder could have been intercepted by Hunters, or shot down by Bloodhound SAMs at 100-km range or engaged by 35mm Oerlikon cannon. Instead, the medium-lift tactical transport in South Vietnam warpaint flew a textbook approach into WSAP. The C-130A flew in unannounced and unchallenged by the RSAF.

Recalling the incident for the first time, the pilot told Senang Diri: "Approaching from about 80 miles out I called Singapore, however the radio had static and I skipped approach control and directly contacted the Singapore Tower. It was never a thought of mine that I may be intercepted by Singapore Air Force.

"To me it was just like touching down in Saigon. I called ground control and they led us to parking. From the distance to the parking spot I saw two ground crew members waiting with ground power and they looked like they knew we were coming as if we were coming in from Vietnam on a normal mission. When the parking engine shutdown, the ground crew hooked the electrical power on the right side forward the nose of the aircraft and gave me a military salute then both of them walked away."

[Author's opinion: As the SVNAF markings look very similar to those of the USAF, I surmise the groundcrew may have mistaken the Hercules for an American bird]

Had this air intrusion occurred in the Internet era, the Public Affairs (PAFF) Directorate at Singapore’s Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) would have its hands full containing the fallout and red faces.
But on 3 April 1975, the news flow was easily contained. Reports were minimal. Indeed, media watchdogs did such a good job that many Singaporeans don't even know about the incident. [A full account of the air intrusion, including an exclusive interview with the pilot and pictures, has been compiled before memories fade. I thank the pilot, his family and all who helped me track him down]

On 20 July this year, cyberpioneer, the Internet incarnation of PAFF’s PIONEER magazine, reported a change of command at the Republic of Singapore Navy’s (RSN) Maritime Security Task Force (MSTF). Two days later, MSTF made the news after RSS Independence, which comes under its operational control, hit an “underwater object”. Some media stories drew reference to the MSTF when they reported the incident. This is the kind of news I'm sure no commander would like to see.

Now for an Army-related example. Chances are Singaporeans will be able to recall that a soldier ran away with a rifle and bullets sometime in 2007.

Defence-savvy individuals – like many of you who visit this blog – would probably remember that the soldier’s name was Corporal Dave Teo and that he was armed with a SAR-21 5.56mm assault rifle.

Dave Teo fled his camp during the tail end of the Army Open House 2007, in fact on the day of the Army Family Day at Pasir Laba Camp.

It’s a fair bet that many netizens will recall the Dave Teo incident far more readily than any of the talking points made by the Singapore Army during the AOH publicity. The publicity itself was expertly managed, but it was over-shadowed by fallout from the Dave Teo incident.

Dave Teo is the strategic Corporal personified – a low-ranking individual whose actions have a bearing on the image of the entire Singapore Army.

Now for a Joint forces example.

In July this year, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Special Operations Task Force came out of the shadows. An online article uploaded on 13 July 2009 by cyberpioneer said: “The SOTF will also be directly responsible for evacuation and diverse rescue operations. Specifically, elements from the SOTF can be deployed to evacuate Singaporeans out of harm's way in any part of the world, should the need arise.”

I was uncomfortable with that statement the moment I read the story. Though I’m the kind of defence enthusiast who will push for greater openness and transparency regarding SAF capabilities, this attitude is tempered with the sense of realism that statements should not backfire on the SAF or blunt its deterrent edge, or embarrass its commanders.

I did not take long for someone to challenge cyberpioneer’s statement.

On 15 October 2009, it was reported that a Singapore-flag container vessel, Kota Wajar, had been hijacked. Early media reports indicated that Singaporeans were on the ship. Fortunately for the SOFT, its crack hostage rescue troopers were not called to prove their mettle as the ship’s agent later clarified there were no Singaporeans onboard.

Though media interest has waned, do remember that the Kota Wajar is still being held by Somali pirates.

Looking at how previous ship hijackings off Somalia have panned out, any planned rescue would have been fraught with operational and logistical challenges. This is why I would have personally steered clear of jingoistic statements of the “any part of the world” genre.

An Army unit may insist on such phrasing. Military security may consider it kosher as it doesn't compromise national security. Defence policy officers may have no comments. But any thinking PR professional who has a reasonable standard of penmanship (and doesn't require a staff officer by his side when drafting submissions...) should veto these lines.

There are many other ways to send the message that the SOTF will be there, ready for action, without chest-beating statements. A factual reference to the multiple extractions - non-combatant evacuation operations - that the Commando Special Operations Force (also known euphemistically as "HQ Commando") and the RSAF’s 122 Squadron executed in Cambodia during Operation Crimson Angel would have sufficed. Singaporeans would know the SAF's hostage rescue capabilities are real and have been tested.

Flipping through my database, I could go on and on with more examples of how unexpected events threw perfectly planned PR plans out of whack, or how newsmakers had to eat their words. This won’t be necessary because I believe the point has been made.

The effort in picking a date for any media announcement is more an art rather than a science.

Sundry tasks including making sure a venue and the guest-of-honour are available. A wet weather plan is vital. The media officer also has to make sure the event doesn't clash with other national announcements, which include anything from results of major school examinations or Budget Day. These could rob journalists from your event or see your announcement dropped due to space pressure in the newspapers.

Depending on the nature and gravity of defence-related announcements, one would need to bear in mind the announcement’s impact on Singaporeans and, perhaps, how our neighbours may perceive the news.

At all cost avoid making announcements - especially those that showcase new defence capabilities - on special days of neighbouring countries such as their Merdeka Day or anniversaries of their Armed Forces.

Historically-conscious media relations officers or defence policy officers may want to red flag historically significant dates. The 10th of December, for example, marks the anniversary of the sinking of Force Z. Holding an event on this date could help your publicity or it could backfire (especially for a RSN event) if some wily journalist puts in one-liner about how such-and-such an event took place on that fateful date.

When the occasion demands, a historically-important date such as 15 February ensures one’s news point packs greater significance. For example, any announcement on the importance of Total Defence or nation-building made on 15 Feb will strike a chord with Singaporeans once readers know that the announcement was made on the anniversary of the Fall of Singapore.

So to all MROs and SAF committees charged with picking that special date for that special event for that special weapon platform or system, good luck.

My sense of the matter is that the SAF is robust enough to weather “unknown unknowns” in the defence information arena.

I have faith in the SAF’s higher leadership and that of the three Services to adapt, adjust its defence information strategy and cope with uncertainty. And thank goodness the Army, RSN and RSAF all have operational control over their own information officers who can clean up the mess when things go wonky. The Army through the Army Information Centre, the Navy through Naval Operations Department and the RSAF through Air Manpower Department.

But this sense of confidence stops at the door of my “favourite” MINDEF/SAF department. *wink*

1 comment:

xtemujin said...

We first got wind that Cpl Dave Teo was missing with the SAR21 from an anonymous post in the forum Hardwarezone EDMW.