Thursday, August 31, 2017

Malaysia wields social media with aplomb after USS John S. McCain incident

The collision between the United States Navy warship, USS John S. McCain, and the tanker, Alnic MC, early on 21 August 2017 saw Malaysia’s information management apparatus kick into high gear.

Malaysia's approach to disseminating information on the tragedy makes an interesting case study, principally because of its heavy use of non-traditional channels such as Twitter.

Updates were noticeably brisk on the Twitter account belonging to the Malaysian Chief of Navy, Admiral Dato' Seri Panglima Ahmad Kamarulzaman bin Haji Ahmad Badaruddin (@mykamarul). 

Ditto for the Director-General of the Malaysia Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA), Datuk Zulkifili Abu Bakar (@KPMaritimMsia).

More than that, tactical units such as the frigate, KD Lekiu, contributed to the info push. Tweets from Lekiu brought Twitterati to the heart of the SAR operation while an RMN Super Lynx naval helicopter also described its role in the operation. When a body had been found by the Malaysian navy, the first pictures of the handover of the body to the US Navy came from a Lekiu tweet. 

On the home front, Singapore government agencies such as the Maritime & Port Authority of Singapore (MPA), Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) relied on the tried-and-tested. News releases were uploaded on their respective websites. A media embed aboard a C-130 Hercules tasked with SAR mirrored the media embed in March 2014 during the early phase of the search done across the South China Sea for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. As with the MH370 tragedy, facebook updates by Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen, lent a touch of warmth to official collaterals.

Malaysia’s active use of social media during the SAR op is indicative of the breadth and depth of updates, and ops tempo it can sustain during future operations.

It’s more than hip and trendy. Malaysian updates were picked up by foreign media outlets when journalists, hungry for information, zoomed in on twitter feeds from the federation. The picture tweeted by @mykamarul of the USS John S McCain was used by several foreign media sites, such as The Guardian (below).

Anyone can set up a social media account as fast as you can type. But to establish street cred and a following in cyberspace takes time.

Decentralising the info push to regional commands such as Markas Wilayah Laut 1 (HQ Naval Region 1) and tactical units such as individual warships and helicopters points to two things:

First, it demonstrates a level of trust for on-scene commanders to furnish updates where and when appropriate. Trust that leads to empowerment expands the info comms toolbox, giving the Malaysians more credible voices to tell their story.

Second, it suggests a level of coordination and speed of response that cuts through layers of bureaucracy. When one considers the level and intensity of global interest in the USS John S. McCain collision, prudence would call for proper SOPs to assess and clear all information and images before these are released to the public.

For a tragedy with an international dimension and one that unfolded in disputed waters, one doubts that Malaysian leaders would countenance a free wheeling style where tactical units can post updates on social media, willy-nilly, without clearance from higher command.

This indicates that the Malaysians have established tight coordination across agencies, as well as close command and control between top management, operational commands and tactical units. The key messages that underpin the info push should have been made clear to all parties involved so that such messages are complementary and mutually reinforcing. The absence of such coordination could risk messages that are contradictory or inaccurate, especially in the “fog of war” situations when the ground situation is difficult to verify.

For those of us familiar with the OODA loop, the fast pace of updates from many facets of the Malaysian SAR operation says a lot about their capability and capacity to orchestrate complex, multi-agency info campaigns in realtime, over several days.

Bear in mind, dear readers, that the US warship tragedy unfolded during a packed season for the Malaysian PR calendar. Malaysian info ops managers had to contend with the 29th Southeast Asian Games (19 to 30 August), launch of KD Maharaja Lela, the RMN’s first Littoral Combat Ship (24 August) and the run-up to the massive parade commemorating 60 years of independence on Merdeka Day today.

Transpose the scale of such events to a Singaporean context and overlay it with a “live” SAR op executed in disputed waters, with a false alarm situation involving the recovery of a body at sea, with no media gaffes by Malaysia, and one comes to respect the level of competence demonstrated by Malaysian information managers.

Just think about how the pace of such an info push could influence sentiment during a short duration, high intensity operation. Think about how Malaysia could further leverage on its superior number of Kuala Lumpur-based defence publications (yes, they publish more defence magazines than Singapore) and one comes to realise the versatility of the toolbox at the command of Malaysian defence information managers.

Malaysia demonstrated how it wielded social media with aplomb, with tact and sensitivity in view of the lives lost and the international dimension involving a superpower.

We give credit where it's due. Bravo Zulu!

1 comment:

in-tell-fro said...

A good change for Malaysia to kick-start their Information and social media campaigns war in this real time event. By launching a social media campaigns in a on-going war or an event something like this can lead to confusion and cause a problem to the other side and at the same time giving you an advantage. Something like this is seen by the on-going war in East of UA. A good live training.