There are two worlds in Singapore.
The Singapore government is familiar with one world, in which the media consists of broadcast and print platforms. This is the world in which the Government remains the biggest voice in Singapore because of the symbiotic relationship between the public sector and traditional media. In this realm, institutional control over information and the management of opinion have been honed to a fine art over the years. But this world is shrinking, albeit at a slower pace than some observers like Bill Gates had envisaged.
The other world includes the internet, that ephemeral medium which is inhabited by anybody who has online access. This is an unfettered world that the Government is uncomfortable, even inept, in navigating. The public sector has a much smaller voice here, drowned out by a cacophony of different views. Conventional forms of influence do not work as well in a sphere over which government has much less direct leverage, partly because of the multiple players involved, both internal and external. The Government’s commitment to maintain a “light touch’’ in this arena makes it even harder to exert any fine control over this world.
The Government has been employing all the social media tools at its disposal to engage those who are more active online than offline. It has made official information easily available and has developed a myriad of ways to make public services more accessible. What the Government is less good at is knowing how to “talk’’ to people online and persuading them to its point of view. While technologically flexible and efficient in disseminating information, it does so in the same voice that it applies to the traditional media realm and with the same expectations and assumptions. It forgets that there tend to be more cynical people online than offline.
Hard Truths about the Online Realm
If the Government wants to do a better job of “engaging’’ people online, it has to come to grips with a few realities online:
- It does not have an effective middleman on the internet.
- It lacks a large and vocal online fan base.
- Missed — and mixed — messages.
- Communications work different online.
One of the advantages of a filter such as traditional media is that it makes official information manageable and easy to understand. Journalists are experts at telling stories attractively .Governments are not. A journalist or editor can help blunt a hectoring tone, add context to make information easier to understand, or soften gaffes. To put it bluntly, the professional news media can help protect a government from its own communications blunders. There is no such mechanism on the internet.
The Government has to acknowledge that when it comes to policy issues, its fans online are silent bystanders, while its detractors are vocal. This is the nature of the beast and not likely to change anytime soon. The best thing the Government can do is to keep the broad middle ground from being affected by extreme adverse views, even while conceding that there might be some truth in dissent.
Important messages may be lost or go awry if a particular “point of interest’’ takes centre stage, distracting from the core issues. Worse, they may be misinterpreted and amplified. This means the Government has to react quickly because it takes just a few minutes for something to go viral. This is in contrast to dealing with traditional media, where there is time to negotiate or formulate an appropriate response.
What and how the Government communicates online must be different from what it does offline. While the traditional media can be relied on, in the main, for appropriate outcomes to government-related news, this simply cannot be guaranteed on the internet. Even traditional media has realised that it cannot use the online medium as a duplicate of its original print or broadcast content. Instead, they have developed a dual approach to news, in the way news content is curated and prioritised online versus offline. The mainstream media has tried to appeal to online readers by catering to their preference for bite-sized news, controversy, colour stories, as well as providing platforms for comment. They know this is a different crowd.
What the Government is less good at is knowing how to “talk’’ to people online and persuading them to its point of view. While technologically flexible and efficient in disseminating information, it does so in the same voice that it applies to the traditional media realm and with the same expectations and assumptions.
The Singapore public sector’s use of the internet generally suggests a confusion of aims. What are the key online objectives of the various agencies? Other than providing an online “information dump”, do the agencies want to be “liked’’ by the public, or seen as authoritative? Is it a pro-active or a reactive approach to engagement? Are there attempts to nurture friendly community relations? With which segments of the public?
Social media cannot do everything — nor is it good for every agency to cultivate an “engaging” image. Technical agencies such as the Law and Finance ministries, for example, should avoid being too free with its public comments and should stay above the fray. On the other hand, an effective social media presence is more important for people-centric agencies such as the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Manpower, or the Housing and Development Board, which have a stronger public-facing mandate and have to demonstrate empathy for the common man.
Public Agencies and Social Media — Points to Consider
Several key questions should form the basis of any government agency’s social media policy:
- If the key objective is to provide information, then social media which directs people to appropriate information on the agency website should suffice.
- If the key aim is engagement, be clear about the image the agency wants to project, because this will decide the tone of communications. Other considerations include:
- Where this engagement should take place. Generally, agencies should engage only on home territory (e.g., their own website or Facebook page) where control is direct.
- What issues should NOT be discussed at all because putting a foot wrong would have far-reaching consequences.
- Who to engage, because there are always some people who are best ignored.
- When to engage or respond to comments, which also involves determining the acceptable level of tolerance.
- How to engage. For example, would the agency want to respond to an issue online, or offline, or both? Again, the two worlds are quite distinct.
Cultivating the Right Image Online
The Singapore Civil Defence Force, with its approachable, light-hearted social media presence, seems to understand that its Facebook page is like a person, with a personality that it wants to brand. However, while humour is usually appealing to the online community, it may not always be the image that public agencies want for themselves
Government agencies usually depend on the mainstream media to broadcast official news and information online while they themselves direct the online community to the original material. In the haste to upload fresh information online, it is common for the media to make mistakes. This should be corrected as quickly as possible before it reaches too many people. Because traditional media can be reluctant to publicise errors online, agencies should consider telling their readers that the earlier draft was incorrect, especially if the mistake was grievous.
Here are three suggestions:
- Reiterate your own key messages
- Engage proactively, not reactively
- Get to know your community voices in person
Instead of re-directing people, agencies might want to consider putting up three key points of its message on its own social media platforms before pointing readers to the fuller mainstream media stories.
Agencies, especially those on the public frontline, might also want to go into specific online groups to sense public queries or concerns and then respond to them quickly. They should not wait for something to go viral and for the news media to pick it up before coming forward with a response. In fact, such pro- active engagement, especially when individuals complain of day-to-day dealings with agencies, should be a matter of course — it goes a long way for branding, and is already the practice in the private sector.
Consider calling for periodic offline engagements (e.g., focus groups or tea sessions) with those who comment on agencies’ areas of interest. There are informal interest or lobby groups online which can make good partners in this regard. These individuals will include detractors that the Government will never be able to win over. More often, however, they would be happy to be engaged in further dialogue.
Building a Community Online
The Singapore Armed Forces may be the public agency with the best online traction. One reason is that it appears to have a diverse range of commentators and authentic interaction on its Facebook page.
Managing Online Opinion
It is clear to everyone that the internet is a powerful tool which can influence opinion on issues. But the online world does not work with offline rules, not even rules of sub judice. Major players might do the responsible thing but it cannot be said to be the same for individuals and online communities who do not even know the rules. The suicide of 14-year Benjamin Lim is a recent case in point. Despite more than 20 articles and a huge online uproar that spilled offline, the official decision was to stay quiet, ostensibly because a coroner’s inquiry will be taking place. The Government may have done better to respond to misinformation quickly rather than hope for the issue to die down — which it did not.
Media regulations and laws should be applied sparingly to issues that arise in the online realm, as they can often backfire, leading to accusations that the Government is being heavy-handed without doing much lasting good. The suspension of the website The Real Singapore1 has only led to the setting up of similar clones. The attempt to use harassment laws on The Online Citizen backfired when the courts ruled that such protection from harassment is intended for individuals and not entities, in much the same way as entities cannot sue for libel.2
The online world does not work with offline rules. Media regulations and laws should be applied sparingly to issues that arise in the online realm, as they can often backfire, leading to accusations that the Government is being heavy-handed without doing much lasting good.
Some agencies have commissioned outside agencies to “seed” messages or to rebut information and opinion online. A better strategy might be for the Government to re-calibrate its attitude towards online citizens and online views:
- Be as transparent with information as possible. It is easier to rebut with additional information instead of mere assertions and assurances. Where there is an information vacuum, someone will fill it, sometimes with garbage. It is true that too much information is indigestible, but it has to be available to those who want the details and to give the Government a fair shake. It is more helpful to public institutions if outsiders reiterate their point of view or make counterarguments on their behalf.
- Always acknowledge different views rather than castigate those who hold them as “keyboard warriors”. Being specific about the target of a rebuttal is far more politic than tarring everyone with the same brush, which turns off even those who support the Government’s point of view.
- Have a savvy social media team with members who are good with language, possess a healthy sense of humour and are in touch with internet culture. It will help agencies avoid public relations gaffes (such as a recent misleading picture caption of a junior minister reclining on a bed in a foreign worker dormitory). More importantly, the team should be empowered to post online without having to refer every post up the hierarchy for vetting, on as wide a range of relevant issues as possible.
Throwing weight or pulling rank does not work on the internet. The Government cannot control internet chatter, it can only hope to be part of it.
The Government will have to get used to the intolerant, irreverent attitude on the internet where conspiracy theories, baseless accusations, sweeping generalisations and cheap shots are rife. They have always been present — technology has merely brought them out into the open. Throwing weight or pulling rank does not work on the internet. The Government cannot control internet chatter, it can only hope to be part of it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bertha Henson was formerly Associate Editor of The Straits Times and worked as a journalist in Singapore Press Holdings for 26 years. During her career, she launched several news magazines, including the global award-winning IN and Little Red Dot for schools, as well as the now defunct Project Eyeball. She now runs her own media training company for government agencies and corporations. She teaches a seminar course on Quality Journalism at Tembusu College, National University of Singapore and is co-founder and consulting editor of The Middle Ground, a news website.
- “Socio-political Site The Real Singapore Taken Down after MDA Suspends Editors’ Licence”, The Straits Times, 3 May 2015, http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/ socio-political-site-the-real-singapore-taken-down-after-mda-suspends-editors-licence.
- “Government Cannot Invoke Harassment Act to Make Website Remove Statements on Mindef: High Court”, The Straits Times, 9 December 2015, http://www. straitstimes.com/singapore/courts-crime/ government-cannot-invoke-harassment-act- to-make-website-remove-statements-on.