Thursday, August 21, 2008

Government engaging bloggers

Monkey observes: The Social Media Breakfast gets covered on the news yesterday. Read my blog post about SMB here. Interesting the writer is a recent NUS CNM graduate.

Come Blog About It
Govt agencies get help putting message out in cyberspace
Today, 20 Aug 2008

YOU want to create an online buzz about a government-sponsored commercial on the family. What do you do? Invite eight bloggers to preview it.

This happened two months ago at a special session organised by global public relations firm Ogilvy. The commercial depicting a single father struggling to raise his daughter eventually aired on June 21 — with the buzz the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) had hoped for.

Mr Richard Tan, MCYS director for communications and international relations, told Today the experience was new in his 20 years' involvement in policy implementation and "very exciting".

Not only did the bloggers come to understand how and why the commercial was made, Mr Tan read their "heartfelt" reactions online. Such sessions "give policymakers and implementers a greater feel of how people really see our initiatives", he said.

Two years after signalling the need to engage the Internet at his National Day Rally, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong revisited the topic on Sunday. Ahead of that, certain Government agencies have already been making the effort to court bloggers' views, while hoping they would put their message in cyberspace.

It is, to some extent, a gamble. These engagement events come with no strings attached — the invited bloggers are free to write what they want, or indeed, not write at all.

Sure, the event could have backfired. But blogger Ian Timothy, 27, who was at the preview, said: "While bloggers have the tendency to be overly critical, we also swing to the other extreme — when we really like something, we won't just stop at talking about it on our blogs, but also share with our friends through other channels."

Public relations, cyber-style

The National Heritage Board, meanwhile, has been hosting museum tours for bloggers and held a session last Saturday for 40 of them at the Asian Civilisations Museum.

In what it believes is a first among agencies here, the board is recruiting for an in-house "social media marketing" position, to cultivate relationships with active bloggers.

Said Mr Walter Lim, its director of corporate communications and industry promotion: "As social media gains prominence, we do have a very high proportion of people, especially teens, who spend time online. It is critical that organisations look at how we can leverage on this growth."

Such perspectives are a far cry from the early days when online views were sniffed at because of their mostly anonymous nature. Blogger EastCoastLife "applauds" the recent initiatives. The mother and education consultant, who asked not to be named, said: "It's better to work with the people, listen to them, than suppress their views."

Bloggers now appear to function as a "public relations arm" and the Government is recognising them as an important medium to reach the public, said Dr Linda Perry, a senior visiting fellow at the National University of Singapore's department of Communications and New Media.

Last year, the National Council Against Drug Abuse rolled out its anti-drug campaign on social sites such as Friendster and YouTube, and prominent Singapore-based bloggers were invited to blog about it.

They were given campaign information, and left to decide if – and what – they wanted to write. "It was a means to reach out to youths through their peers," said a spokeswoman from the Central Narcotics Bureau. Youths complimented this "ingenious approach", with at least one blogger, Darryl Kang, posting the "best campaign ads I've ever seen" on his blog and highligting the dangers of drug abuse.

For bloggers, what this all eventually might mean is a greater role in policy, said Ian Timothy. Instead of just blogging about what they see the Government doing, "we become active participants".

Press accreditation for bloggers?

Could such participation go a step further to include news reporting? Last month, the Malaysian Government issued press passes to about 10 online news sites such as Malaysiakini, but stopped short of handing them out to bloggers since blogs are often personal in nature.

Press passes would allow bloggers access to Government briefings or press conferences, for example, and the access to speak to officials at these events.

Said editor of The Online Citizen Choo Zheng Xi: "It's better to bring them in and allow them to see things from the government point of view, rather than lock them out and they criticise without understanding."

This could mean fewer misunderstandings and, while bloggers may still be critical, "it will be more constructive criticism", he added.

But one concern among commentators is credibility and accuracy – bloggers, after all, would largely not have journalistic training and their writing would not be subject to the editing process of the traditional media.

EastCoastLife said most bloggers at the preview of the MCYS commercial "weren't prepared and not active in responding. There were many questions to be asked, but they let slip the opportunity." Most bloggers, she felt, are not ready to be responsible.

Associate Professor Ang Peng Hwa of Nanyang Technological University's communications programme: "Unless they are prepared to have themselves held accountable (for their writing), I don't see how bloggers can equate themselves with professional media."

Member of Parliament (MP) Baey Yam Keng said blogsites that report on government issues should be regulated like traditional media, "to establish the same quality of objective and responsible reporting".

"I think it (bloggers reporting) could happen in the future, but looking at the state of the blogsphere now, I think the Government would not be comfortable," he said.

Still, fellow MP Lam Pin Min was "not averse" to credible bloggers covering press conferences as it would "be a positive step" towards harnessing blogs to put out information, "engage and solicit feedback from the public".

WEBTURN @ A blogger on the CNB's anti-drug campaign online: