British academic says its strategy ensures that it communicates effectively in a tough situation
By Jeremy Au Yong
A BRITISH academic has cited Singapore as a model of a government that makes smart use of public relations.
This model, contends Dr Jonathan Woodier, 48, in a recently completed doctorate thesis, offers 'hope to all authoritarian regimes'.
The director of communications at Citibank in London made a number of bold arguments in his thesis analysing the media in Asia.
Besides highlighting how good PR is useful for governments, he also challenged the notion that global media outlets are deliberate agents of democratic change.
International media outlets, he argued, have been given more credit than is their due.
'CNN doesn't walk into Singapore and say it wants to change local politics,' he said.
His thesis, titled Karaoke Culture And The Evolution Of Personality Politics, contains a chapter on Singapore and focuses on its successful use of professional PR techniques.
'Communication in the current climate has become very confused. There is a lot of noise and the ability to cut through the noise has become very important,' said Dr Woodier, who was a journalist in Asia for nearly 20 years from the 1980s, including with CNBC and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
'Singapore has become very professional in its approach to communication,' he told The Straits Times.
That approach includes hiring public relations firms and giving media training to top leaders and spokesmen.
The handling of the fallout from Sars was a case in point.
In the wake of the 2003 outbreak, tourism was badly hit and PR firm Burson-Marsteller was hired to help get the industry back on its feet.
Campaigns launched included Singapore Roars, a six-month marketing drive to attract tourists; and Cool Singapore, to get hotels and retailers to practise preventive measures and to reassure customers that they were Sars-free.
'It was a fantastic effort. It was a time when the international community was threatening to ring-fence the country, but the Government and the PR campaign kept it open,' he said.
But beyond the tourism example, he said Singapore was an example of a place where 'local elites' were able to face the challenge of globalised media influencing their hold on power.
He put this point starkly in an interview with the University of Queensland after the completion of his PhD there: 'The longevity of the successful, media-controlled modern state as modelled by Singapore, in particular, holds out an example to offer hope to all authoritarian regimes.
'China and many other states in Asia look to Singapore in particular, as it has increasingly followed a sophisticated media strategy, using the techniques espoused by public relations experts to ensure that it communicates effectively in an increasingly complicated media environment.'
Getting a message across effectively 'will help protect your position' at a time of threats from all over, he said.
These threats include the flow of information across borders, the use of technology like SMS by small groups to get their messages out, and the fact that the 1997 Asian financial crisis may have eroded confidence in the model where development of a nation is entrusted to the state.
But low on that list of threats, contrary to popular belief, is the international media's impact.
'Outlets like CNN and CNBC are not interested in politicisation. They are interested in profit. There may be a subliminal influence - somebody in the Philippines watching a programme about the US may say: 'I want to live like that' - but that effect is not deliberate,' he said.
'So when leaders point a finger at global media, they are giving them more influence than they actually have.'
[While the media in and of themselves are not interested in politicisation, neither are they against the politicisation of any issue for the purpose of news reporting. In other words, if human rights agencies or special interests groups seek to cast aspersions or otherwise politicise issues, it is newsworthy and media will cover it. Moreover, as they are covering the news for their audience back home, they will couch the issue in terms and values that the audience back home will empathise and understand. While the media may not have a conscious or deliberate intent to impose their values on the non-western audience, the fact is that their home audience is western and the pitch of their stories will be normalised around western culture and values.]