Communicating in a more transparent and tricky media environment



August 2nd, 2007

The poet, William Butler Yeats, once said: “Think like a wise man, but communicate in the language of the people.”

The voices of the people are coming to us in a myriad of ways. Today, Singapore has one of the world’s highest PC, Internet and mobile phone penetration rates. It is noteworthy that our mobile phone penetration rate in May this year hit a high of 109.5%, while household broadband penetration rose from 68.4% in April to 69.2% in the same month.

As technology becomes more advanced, the lines between traditional and non-traditional forms of media are blurring. Movies can be watched in cinemas, on television and over the Internet. News can be obtained from newspapers, radio, TV, Internet and also through SMS, MMS and the Blackberry. Consumers are now in greater control of what they watch, how they watch and when they watch.

Speed of delivery of news also becomes important, particularly in crisis management and communications. In the event of disaster, people inevitably turn to the Internet for the latest breaking news. When the shootings took place at Virginia Tech University on April 16, people were blogging about the incident and posting eyewitness accounts within that same morning, if not the hour. CNN posted a clip taken from the mobile phone of a student who had captured the shooting, while over at the BBC, emails were pouring in from students on campus. One of them came from a student who described how the gunman tried to shoot his way into the classroom. Meanwhile, journalists trawled Internet sites like Facebook to glean more information through the personal pages and memorials of users, sparking off a debate about journalism ethics in online space.

If nothing else, the Virginia Tech massacre brought home the reality of Web 2.0 – the power of social networking sites to inform, communicate and bring people together. Underscoring this is the emergence of the “Prosumer” – a user as well as producer of media content and services – and the whole concept of user-generated content.

Online platforms like YouTube, mySpace and other blogging websites encourage the creation of user-generated content. Closer to home, we have STOMP – the Straits Times Interactive online portal that encourages users to “connect, engage and interact” with other users.

The popularity of YouTube is such that now, it is the fastest growing brand in the world, with 36 million registered users. At its peak, it was registering 1 million new users a month although with competition, this growth has slowed down. Social networking and user-generated content are not phenomena restricted to the English-speaking world. It is a phenomenon that is being repeated the world over. In China, there is Tu-dou  – a Chinese version of YouTube. In Japan, the social networking site “Mixi” is red-hot with users.

To put participatory media in perspective, a recent study done by Jupiter Research stated that three quarters of Internet users aged between 18 and 25 are creating or reading user-generated content. Another third of those over age 55 are also participating in user-generated content as well. In Asia, we have close to 400 million Internet users and the number is increasing year on year.

In Singapore alone, out of the 1,723,300 Singaporeans Internet users aged 15 and above, approximately 45% downloaded and uploaded content such as digital photos, games and music in 2004. Around 32% did video streaming downloads.

Beyond generating the 1-minute-just-for-laughs clips one sees so often on YouTube, user-generated content is becoming increasingly sophisticated and targeted. There are now lobby groups for a million causes, and many take it upon themselves to “right this world.” This is the rise of “Citizen Journalism” where the average Joe plays a role in not just reporting the news, but also in setting the news agenda.

In fact, such is the social influence of the new media that traditional media businesses are starting to heed the wake-up calls. In March, BBC inked a deal with YouTube that will see short news and entertainment clips made available on the service. More recently, BBC announced its intention to lay bare the reporting process with a multi-media experiment. It will release a series of behind-the-scenes videos detailing how it compiles its news packages. Unedited footage of interviews and shots for reports will be posted on the Internet along with pages of the reporter’s research notes.

CNN, meanwhile, will partner YouTube to sponsor two presidential debates in the run-up to the US presidential elections next year. The two forums will feature video questions submitted to YouTube. These will then be broadcast and answered by the candidates live on CNN.

What will this mean to you as professionals in the PR and communications industry?

For starters, the new media space has created many more platforms for communication. For communicators, there is tremendous opportunity in harnessing this multiplicity to package and niche-cast information for targeted audiences.

Citizen journalists and media content developers will have more ways to spread their messages than before; and the growing new media channels will only increase their influence and fuel their creativity further.

The dynamics of trust – probably the most vital element in the business of Public Relationships – has changed dramatically today. The wired generation puts more faith in the collective wisdom of crowds online, such as that found in aggregated blogs and online forums, than on isolated voices in traditional media.

Users are blogging about their life experiences – and this sometimes includes experiences with products and services. They are forming online communities – and sometimes, this means the accidental formation of groups with common product or service consumption patterns.

It is not surprising that our local blogosphere has also seen a corresponding growth in figures. According to a news report in Straits Times’ Digital Life, there are now 862,000 bloggers in Singapore who engage in social discussions online, compared to 502,000 last year.

This next generation of users can be described as technically competent and savvy in creating content, marketing it – and themselves – online; linking to other individuals and corporations; forming communities; creating influence; and, making their voices heard.

It is interesting to note how a local web start-up has started a service, called Shared Copy, that enables visitors to leave comments as they surf the web. Think of it as sign-postings or scribbles on the wall that others can call-up when they are on a particular webpage that has been marked on. While, from a technical perspective, all this will do is change the way others behave on websites, think of the potential impact that user-generated notes can have on the corporate websites and reputations of your clients and organizations!

The volume and diversity of online conversations will also lead to multiple niche communities that cannot be reached or engaged through traditional PR tactics like press releases or even conventional advertising.

While this poses a challenge to PR practitioners, it also creates a tremendous opportunity which can work for, or against you. You have a mandate to understand them before they become mainstream; and to use them strategically and responsibly in the interest of the organizations you represent, as well as customers and other stakeholders.

Let me give you an example of how online platforms can be used to spread your marketing message and broaden your target audience reach: Between March and April this year, we launched an innovative and successful public initiative called Hi-Def Showtime to bring the High-Definition TV experience closer to the community.

The first competition of its kind in Singapore, Hi-Def Showtime presented participants with the challenge of promoting HD technology through a creative routine. The clips were filmed in HD and shortlisted clips were subsequently posted online for the public to vote for their favourite clips.

Over six weeks, an astonishing total of some 416,400 votes were received. The contest clearly struck a chord with the community and the online medium offered an easy and instantaneous way to engage public interest.

Regulating with a Light Touch

The new media consumption habits and the rise of citizen journalism present fresh challenges for regulators. Where do we draw the line between freedom of expression and the responsibility of creation? Even as we encourage technological advancement and the involvement of the people, the regulator also has the responsibility to protect minors from harmful content.

At MDA, we realize that it is futile to fight the onslaught of the new media and “prosumerism”. In fact, we don’t want to because we see the positive effects of prosumerism. It provides a good way for the people to become socially aware and engaged in the concerns of society. It is also the most effective platform to reach out to the younger crowd. Some of our politicians have been writing blogs and engaging in candid cyberspace talk with their constituents.

So how do we harness the potential of new media while safeguarding our values and protecting public interest? On the policy front, our response has been to put forward a class license framework. This is a licensing scheme that needs no prior approval or application, and automatically deems content providers of Internet, 3G and other new media service to be licensed, while requiring that they comply with certain content conditions.

In Singapore, our focus is on content that is harmful to minors or offends racial or religious sensitivities. As long as these issues are not encroached upon, we regulate these media forms with a “light touch” — whether the content is generated by Prosumers or professional content providers. This pragmatic approach allows room for people to engage and experiment and ultimately, contribute to a more creative and innovative society. At the same time, we co-regulate with the industry by encouraging our players to be responsible by setting standards and drawing up their own codes of practice.

Equally important is the need to educate our people on the opportunities and pitfalls of new media, to help them to be able to discern and consume media critically and to participate responsibly. In the past year, we have worked with partners from the people, private and public organizations to organize close to a hundred media education campaigns that reached out to nearly 5% of our population. But clearly, more needs to be done.

Recently, the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts set up the Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society or AIMS to study and advise the Government on the long-term social, ethical, legal and regulatory implications of the new media.

And to complement AIMS, both MICA and MDA have also established the Internet and Media Advisory Committee to provide advice on media literacy policies, issues and programmes. The committee, comprising members of the public and private sectors, encourages Singaporeans to use new media for work, learning and play in a responsible and discerning manner.


It is apparent that the media landscape has changed drastically and irrevocably. With the rise of Citizen Journalism, companies and individuals have to navigate a business landscape that is far more transparent, and often, a lot more tricky.

In this environment, shoddy customer service now risk harsh criticisms on blogs and online forums where electronic word-of-mouth transmission is a powerful tool in spreading news; where disgruntled employees can very easily start a blog to lash out against their employers.

Your organizations, your clients and even your vendors are, more than ever, subject to the scrutiny, demands and whims of an empowered and “always on, always connected” public. And the work that you do – “managing relationships through effective and strategic communication” – has become far more complex and more vital today.

Remember that your role and skills as communicators and influencers bring with it an increased responsibility to abide by higher standards of transparency and honesty. And the fact that you are intimately in touch with customers and stakeholders puts you in a position to offer much more valuable counsel to the orgnisations that you work for or with.

Because you help organisations build trust with the public, you hold a very important role, not only to businesses, but also to customers and to society at large. Just as organizations depend on you to communicate their goals and plans, their stakeholders look to you to create a trusted platform for that communication and to ensure that their voices and feedback are heard as well.

Let me conclude with a quote by the noted American journalist, Edward R Murrow:

“The newest computer can merely compound, at speed, the oldest problem in the relations between human beings, and in the end the communicator will be confronted with the old problem, of what to say and how to say it.”

I wish you well as you continue your journey in learning this exciting aspect of the media landscape. And I encourage you, in true collaborative spirit of the social and new media, to share that understanding; and together, gain mastery over strategies and tactics that will help you, and the companies you represent, to communicate better.

This article is edited from Dr Christopher Chia’s keynote address at the IPRS Conference on 1 August.

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