Saturday, April 30, 2011

Singapore General Elections 2011: Does the PAP Understand the Electorate?

Early in their careers, PR Professionals are taught that for a Theme to be effective, the Theme must appeal to the “vulnerabilities” of the Target Audience. Derived from the attributes, attitudes or conditions of the Target Audience, these vulnerabilities (while generally consistent) are not static and can change over time.

An analysis of the current Singapore General Elections show that the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) has adopted the Theme of “proven leadership”. This is the same Theme that they have successfully adopted in past elections. Using the “feedback” of netizens responding to the PAP's campaign Messages, it appears that the PAP may have failed to realise that the Vulnerabilities their Theme once effectively appealed to, now no longer exists.

Specifically, the current demographics of voters are generally post-1985. Having been brought up in an environment of peace and stability, and having been exposed to western ideas of democracy, the current electorate desire for more than material comforts. Ideas like freedom of speech, transparency and public accountability of office bearers are important to them. Additionally, the past benefits of having less talented opposition candidates no longer exists. In this Election, the best of the opposition candidates trumps the worst of the PAP's.

The key lesson for PR Professionals is this. Themes and Messages must target the vulnerabilities of the Target Audience to be effective. Based on attributes, attitudes and conditions, these Vulnerabilities are not constant. PR Professionals must therefore constantly study and monitor their Target Audience to ensure that they select the correct Theme.  What may have worked in the past, may not work in the present or the future.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Role of Social Media in Singapore General Elections 2011

On 22 April 2011, The Kent Ridge Common published an article by Lester Lim titled “Drawing the Line on Internet Debates”.  In his article on the Singapore General Election 2011, Lester argued that no one is perfect and that, in the era of social media, flaws in every candidate can be found if one looks hard enough. Lester then went on to assert that these “splinters of information” may in fact be inaccurate, taken out of context, or even possibly malicious and basing one's vote based solely on these information is dangerous. In Lester's view, all information on social media, or for that matter even on the main stream media, must be read with healthy skepticism.

While I fully agree with Lester's view that information on social media is prone to inaccuracies and subject to malicious manipulations, I however feel that an Internet savvy electorate can discern fact from fiction. As such, contrary to what Lester asserts, I believe that the Internet's ability to provide instantaneous news on a 24/7 basis, consolidated and indexed via intelligent search engines, has made it the ideal platform for political candidates (and organisations) to engage their opposition and win their constituents over.

This is because social media is beyond the control of any individual or organisation, and coupled with its ubiquitous nature, social media has created a 'perfect information' environment where anything of importance will be made public and false or deliberately misleading statements revealed. Thus, as expounded in economic theory, with perfect information, stakeholders behaving rationally will make the best decision and choose the “best” candidate to represent them.

For example, without social media, I doubt that the People's Action Party's (PAP) March 1987 condescending dismissal of Opposition Member Chaim See Tong's call to reduce full-time National Service would have surfaced to remind the electorate that the PAP does not have a monopoly on ideas. Or Sylvia Lim's convincing 2007 parliamentary statement arguing against multi-million dollar salaries for ministers. Or the political wrangling within the Reform Party that questions the party's ability to mount a credible challenge in the coming elections.

Without these “splinters of information”, voters would not have a complete picture of the General Elections and would be less equipped to choose the “best” candidate to represent them. At the end of the day, it is my opinion that far from being something voters should avoid or read with skepticism, information on social media (however splintered) is useful in providing voters with a clearer understanding of the situation and will ultimately help them make the "right" choice.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Singapore General Elections 2011: Tin Pei Ling Responds

On 14 April 2011, Yahoo News! Singapore, carried an article by Alicia Wong titled “My Conscience is clear: Tin Pei Ling.” In the article, Alicia reports that Tin Pei Ling has finally broken her silence on the criticisms levelled at her since she was introduced as a candidate for the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) 2 weeks ago.

Tin Pei Ling's response was done via an interview by the Lianhe Zaobao, which was eventually carried by The New Paper and subsequently Yahoo! News Singapore. In her interview, Tin Pei Ling attempted to add context to the pictures circulating from her Facebook account, while attempting to deliver the following Messages: (a) “I cannot change the fact that I am young”; (b) "I just hope that Singaporeans can have confidence in me and give me the opportunity to prove myself"; (c) "I'm prepared to face whatever comes my way"; (d) "The most important thing is that my conscience is clear”; (e) "I have also tried to see where they are coming from and why they say certain things about me"; (f) “I want to serve society”; and (g) “I like participating in things and I thoroughly enjoyed my seven years as a grassroots activist”.

From the Crisis Communications perspective, there are several lessons which the PR Professional can learn.

Firstly, the timing of the response. It is interesting to note that since the controversy started, Tin Pei Ling made no real attempt to respond to netizens' criticisms. Instead, she chose to lay low, allowing interest to wane before responding. This is a calculated move. By choosing to remain silent, Tin Pei Ling did not “add fuel to the fire.” However, by choosing to remain silent, it only added to stakeholders' perception that she is not “strong enough” to stand up for herself.

Secondly, the choice of medium. It is also interesting to note that she chose the Lianhe Zaobao as the primary source to tell her side of the story. It is interesting as the demographics of Marine Parade (as provided by ShowNearby Analytics) show that PMETs account for 43% of residents, 33.2% are Diploma holders or higher, and language literacy is 59.2% for English and 35.5% for Chinese. Hence, if Tin Pei Ling's Target Audience was the majority of voters in Marine Parade, then perhaps an “English” newspaper would have been the more logical choice. Unfortunately, the English newspaper appear to be the most critical of her.

Thirdly, the Theme and Messages. An analysis of Tin Pei Ling's Messages reveals that she had 7 Messages to convey and this was based on the Theme of “maturity beyond my age”. Unfortunately, Tin Pei Ling did not realise that too many Messages confuse stakeholders. And, from the media reports that I have read, her Theme of “maturity” did not come across. Tin Pei Ling would have been better off choosing 3 key Messages, repeating them often and backing them up with examples.

In summary, the key take-aways for PR Professionals are this ...

- the timing of the response is important. In this instance where the Theme is “maturity”, delaying the response is not inline with the Theme and may be counter-productive
- sometimes the most logical medium is not the best option. In situations like this, using a neutral reporter or newspaper is the best way to get your side of the story out
- when it comes to Messages, more is not necessarily better. As a rule, choose no more than 3 and keep emphasising them so that the stakeholder gets the Message.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Singapore General Elections 2011: Tin Pei Ling Saga

Since the People's Action Party's (PAP) introduction of Ms Tin Pei Ling as a candidate for the upcoming General Elections 2011 (GE 2011), the Internet has been set abuzzed with people questioning her qualifications to be Member of Parliament (MP) given her young age. Additionally, Tin Pei Ling's online reputation (as depicted on social network sites) seem to lend credibility to netizens' concerns. 

In the realm of Crisis Communications in the Era of Social Media, two lessons can be derived from this saga.

Firstly, we undeniably live in a perfect information environment. Close scrutiny is inevitable given the high stakes and likely interest of voters on the candidates being presented as their possible future representative in government. Thus, while information posted on the Internet is archived permanently, there exists methods and techniques to “clean-up” one's online reputation. It is obvious that the PAP failed to do this for Tin Pei Ling.

The second lesson from this saga is the PAP's Crisis Response Strategy (CRS). As mentioned in my earlier posting (Framework for Crisis Management), stakeholders attribute blame based on perceived responsibility. In this saga, stakeholders are questioning the poor decisions, not only to field a 27 year old candidate, but also to field her as part of a Group Representation Constituencies (GRC) headed by Senior Minister (SM) Goh Chok Tong. In this scenario, attribution of responsibility to the PAP is high as (a) it was an internal party decision to field her (locus of control); (b) stakeholder concerns about her suitability was predictable (stability); and (c) the PAP had control over the final decision (controllability).

In such a situation, according to the Crisis Communication Framework, the appropriate CRS for the PAP is adopt is one of ACCEPTING responsibility and then helping stakeholders to cope with the crisis. Unfortunately, the PAP appears to have adopted a DENY CRS and has gone on to adopt the Theme of “proven government” with the Messages of “robust selection process” and “experienced grassroots leader.” Given the mismatch in the response (i.e. Deny instead of Accept), it is therefore not surprising that the PAP's responses has failed to quell stakeholder concerns.

The key lessons for PR Professionals from this saga are as follows ...

- In the Era of Social Media, stakeholders will rely on the Internet for information. A proper once over to ensure that unfavourable information is “removed” is therefore essential.
- Adopting the correct Crisis Communication Strategy is important. Failure to do so, will only prolong the crisis and allow it to spiral further out of control

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Sunday, April 3, 2011

Pastor Terry Jones Quran Burning Incites Violence in Afghanistan UN Employees Killed

On 2 Apr 2011, the online version of The Washington Post reported that Pastor Terry Jones had made good on his earlier threat to burn the Quran.  In an act streamed live via the Internet, Pastor Terry Jones and his congregation staged a mock trial which found the Quran "guilty of crimes against humanity."

In an immediate act of retribution, the NBC Miami reported on 1 Apr 2011 that a UN Compound in the usually serene Balkh province of Afghanistan was overrun by protestors resulting in the death of at least 7 UN employees including 2 who were beheaded.

As I explained in my research on Crisis Communications in the Era of Social Media, social media has enabled practically anyone with Internet access to reach out to a global audience. Unfortunately, unlike professional journalists who subscribe to a professional code of conduct, these citizen journalists do not.  Ciftizen journalists are therefore free to pursue personal agendas without regards for the consequences.

Pastor Terry Jones' recent Quran buring act is a prime example of the dangers of allowing the unconstrained use of social media. While I am not advocating Government regulation or censorship of the Internet, I am however advocating that Governments around the world need to enact laws that will enable them to hold netizens accountable for their actions. Such laws, used judiciously (so as not to infringe on the individual's right to expression) will then enable Governments to stop blatantly irresponsible actions against the common good.

While I firmly support the right of free speech, I also believe that the right comes with the obligation to use it responsibly. And, if an individual fails in his obligations, he must be held accountable.

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