Thursday, May 12, 2011

After the battle: Public relations and sentiment management hits and misses in the General Election 2011 campaign

Reality check? The lead letter in The Straits Times Forum Page published on Wednesday 11 May 2011 is an egregious example of how some observers choose to sugar coat bitter pills with skewed intellectual arguments. If the party is sincere about improving its performance in the next Geneal Elections, it needs a no BS assessment of GE 2011.

The letter you see above underscores and emphasizes the uphill task the People's Action Party (PAP) faces when analysing results of the 7 May 2011 General Elections (GE).

If the PAP continues to be in denial or indifferent to public opinion, the party will find itself in trouble at the next GE. The party's information management war plan to win the hearts and minds of voters badly needs revamping because its current playbook is sadly dated and public relations (PR) advice either poorly-conceived or poorly-received (assuming its PR gurus were competent to begin with).

The writer points out that the GE result was "actually a step backward for the opposition" and builds his case on the fact that the new Parliament will have "only one elected opposition party". Such logic is delusional.

By the writer's definition of opposition success, he would probably remain indifferent so long as the absolute number of opposition parties in Parliament remains low. Hardwired with such logic, the Workers' Party's (WP) achievement in raising its presence in Parliament from one to six seats failed to impress him.

The writer also points out the WP's defeat in various seats, including Joo Chiat single member constituency where I live. It would be timely for the writer to reflect on the sharp swing vote against the PAP in the past two GEs from sandwich class households who populate Joo Chiat. Had Mr Chan Soo Sen stood in Joo Chiat against the WP candidate, I have little doubt the PAP incumbent would have been ousted as Mr Chan is not as popular as people make him out to be. If you do some spadework, you will find out why.

Internet chatter
A political party that ushered a resource-deprived city state from Third World to First, in one generation and against all odds, should be adored by its people. Sadly, net chatter does not mirror such sentiments. Indeed, the opposite holds true in the virtual world.

GE 2011 shows there is a clear disjoint between bureaucratic efficiency and smooth running of Singapore's economy and essential services (i.e. the hardware of a country) with the heartware so vital in enlisting and maintaining the support of people for government policies - both popular and unpopular (like COEs).

The public relations posture of PAP candidates during the lead up GE 2011 seemed puzzlingly behind the curve, almost amateurish and it paid the price after votes were tallied across the island.

In my opinion, the botched PR strategy saw the PAP surrender the initiative to the Opposition at critical junctures during the campaign season. It made the party voice reactive, belatedly so in some of the cases narrated below, lending credence to the heartlanders' view that this is a party with its head so high in the clouds it cannot relate to ground sentiments.

Such bungling cost it votes, particularly when MIW candidates were fielded against better and opponents who are more net savvy.

At a time when rally speeches can be tweeted or blogged about before the speaker's bum returns to his/her seat, the PAP's lack of adroitness in the blogosphere revealed its soft underbelly. Its opponents realised this and went in for the kill. Just look at how anti-PAP sentiments dominate the blogosphere.

The old playbook's style of demolishing opponents also hurt the party's public image in cases where PAP candidates unwittingly fed public concerns that the party had grown arrogant, materialistic, overbearing and out of touch with ground sentiments.

The impact of social media during GE 2011 worries party strategists because netizens made good their pledge to voice their unhappiness at the ballot box. Party advocates were lone voices, flamed and isolated in a hostile virtual Singapore.

So while the MIW go into belly-gazing mode and reflect on GE 2011, it is vital that the so-called 4th Generation leaders pick up the right information management lessons from their 3rd Gen mentors and grassroots advisors.

Hits and misses

2 April 2011: Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong made a poor judgement call with his handling of running mate, Tin Pei Ling, who went into radio silence after being flamed by netizens. By letting TPL go incommunicado from the time the flaming began, the party surrendered the initiative at a time when aggressive proactive counter action was needed.

Mr Goh's off colour joke that TPL was "traumatised" sent netizens into overdrive as pro- and anti-PAP elements speculated on TPL's state of mind. Just when the party could have engaged heartlanders with real issues that bugged them, the PAP made front page news on 3 April's edition of The Sunday Times for all the wrong reasons. Column inches in a prime spot in a newspaper were wasted, repeat wasted, on TPL. The fact that TPL still needed SM Goh to defend her emphasized her ineffectiveness in reaching out to netizens and young Singaporeans, and reinforced the view that she lacked maturity.

18 April: "Servants, not masters". I like Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's reminder to party activists that the party is here to serve all Singaporeans.

With Confucius-like firmness, PM Lee said: "Never forget we are servants of the people, not their masters. Always maintain a sense of humility and service. Never lord it over the people we are looking after and serving. Be as strict with ourselves as we are with others, because that is the way for us to win respect and support, and for the PAP to remain the People's choice to govern Singapore."

This is good. There are not "buts" though I ask that you scroll down to the entries for 25 April.

22 April: The headline of this longish personality profile on a new PAP candidate, Mr Lawrence Wong, is unfortunate. I bet that the vast majority of readers did not read the story from start to end but simply glanced at the headline before flipping the page. Seen out of context, the headline reminded netizens why alternative voices are vital in the new Parliament. It was a free advertisement for a notion Opposition voices had been seeding among heartlanders: That PAP candidates are Yes Men.

23 April: Please read the headline of the report above. Now look at the one below (dated 1 May 2011).

The backflip is apparent. The party compromises its goody two shoes image and hurts its credibility with such antics. This is politics? Perhaps so. But do not forget you are appealing to voters to support people they can trust. After the financial fiascos at the National Kidney Foundation and Ren Ci Charity, the Opposition's strategy of harping on the security of CPF money plays on people's unvoiced or unheard fears that similar monkey business could ruin their retirement savings.

The rule of thumb for effective public communications is never to hem yourself in with words that will come back to haunt you.

25 April: It was a bad call by the PAP's Holland-Bukit Timah GRC team to turn the spotlight on a video that supposedly exposed the "gay agenda" of Opposition candidate, Dr Vincent Wijeysingha. The political schadenfreude strengthened the prevailing view that the party had grown arrogant and - more tellingly -  that such arrogance needed to be put in its place. So this was, in my opinion, an own goal.

The Holland-Bukit Timah PAP candidates showed poor understanding of social media after they let the genie out of the bottle and found they had whipped up unexpected vitriol against their party.

It was naive of Dr Vivian Balakrishnan to expect net fury to die down just because he said people should not talk about the issue anymore.

Few people would have argued with Dr VivianB if Dr VincentW's intentions were truly nefarious. But when netizens examined the net footage and compiled a transcript of the forum Dr VincentW, it emerged that it was verbal jousting with a good dose of humour that could put many stand-up comics like Kumar out of business.

The tomfoolery of the PAP's Holland-Bukit Timah team was regrettable. It was sneaky and tarred PM Lee's "servants, not masters" reminder which attempted to coax voters to understand that the party was taking pains to win the confidence of voters with a sound and logical manifesto. In retrospect, the noise and fury generated by the videogate saga drowned out PM Lee's earlier message.

Remember this: the shelf life of a media talking point is around two weeks (which is why netizens are no longer interested in the SAF maid saga. They have moved on). By opening the account just a week before Polling Day, the PAP's Holland-Bukit Timah team ensured the topic would remain hot during the campaign season. Pity.

30 April: In the last week of April, media watchers would have seen SM Goh renege his decision not to comment on Opposition outside Marine Parade and endured the videogate saga.

Along came Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, who with characteristic frankness told Aljunied residents what sort of future they faced if they voted against the PAP. MM Lee said: "Well, it's their choice. And I'd say they have five years to live and repent." *ouch*

Ample views have been aired on this matter. As far as own goals go, this one nearly killed the goalkeeper.

3 May: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's public apology was astute, albeit belated. It is true that it is never too late to say sorry, but a closer appreciation of ground sentiments over cost of living, foreign talent and other bread and butter issues would have allowed superior information management to swing into action.

In my opinion, the PAP does not lack early warning indicators. But the system has shown its disdain/disrespect for people who have dared to question its authority. It seems intolerant of dissent and must always have the last word. Case in point: Look at how academic Dr Bilveer Singh was severely chastised for remarking that some Singaporeans live a hand-to-mouth existence. (Even my Forum Page letter questioning SAF training safety in 2009 got me on the wrong side of MINDEF's Director Public Affairs, who took it upon himself to mete out childish punitive measures.)

The desire for political glasnost after PM Lee's mea culpa should not open the doors to shoddy research (not saying that Dr Singh's research was shoddy but he withdrew his remarks after the firestorm) nor should we kowtow to crackpot opinions and political opportunists.

We dig in, hold out ground when we need to be firm. But the Establishment must be more receptive to alternative viewpoints without the kneejerk reaction of demolishing critics and blackballing individuals by adding unkind remarks to their P-file.

Above all, it needs to weed the field of smarmy grassroots who tell their political bosses things they want to hear or volunteer to help the MIW for pecuniary interests (example: lucrative town council contracts).

4 May: The deluge of questions during PM Lee Hsien Loong's webchat demonstrated convincingly that politicial awareness is thriving in the blogosphere. But coming so late in the campaign, the webchat was political theatre - nice for headline news but in reality, contributing little to the relief valve for pent-up frustrations.

5 May: Foreign Minister George Yeo, who led the PAP's Aljunied GRC team, pledged to help transform the party and acknowledged "widespread unhappiness". To me, this was a turning point in the campaign as it showed the battle for Aljunied was over before the first vote had been cast.

It was a watershed because the MIW had been put on the defensive so close to Polling Day. With social media abuzz with chit chat over voting preferences, heartlanders (i.e. voters) were operating in as near a situation of knowing voting patterns ahead of time as one could hope for.

While Singaporeans seemed uneasy with voting the MIW out of power, making Aljunied the WP's point of main effort eased fears among voters of a freak election result, thus neutralising the MIW's freak election result messages. In simple language, greater clarity of the election battlespace allowed the Opposition to elevate Aljunied into a national issue while MIW Aljunied candidates were going on endlessly about 5 cents/10 cents municipal issues - midges, lift upgrading, covered walkways, yellow boxes for traffic junctions etc.

The Opposition was quick to jump onto these belated attempt at fence mending. The apologies by PM Lee and calls by George Yeo to transform the party worked to bolster the WP's call for alternative voices.

Too little, too late. The PAP's poor record at making room for alternative voices alarmed people with the possibility they may wake up on 8 May with no one to challenge the party.

When then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong called a GE in 1991 and led the PAP to its worst defeat since independence, the poor showing was blamed on Goh's folksy and consultative style of leadership. So the party swung the other way after Goh said he would be a little deaf to people's voices.

Fast forward 20 years to GE 2011. The PAP now blames its loss of six seats (plus two near misses - Joo Chiat and Potong Pasir) to its failure to listen to the people.

How ironic? This is politics.


Anonymous said...

Good read. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Silly me, i thought it was govt policies that got the opposition votes. But with the benefit of Boey's wisdom, I now know PAP policies are fine. It was just bad PR that lost them votes.