Friday, August 23, 2013

Being a Social Media Ambassador

This post is an excerpt and adaptation from a presentation I delivered at MINDEF's 11th CIO Seminar on 1 Aug 13. I am sharing it here for the rest of my MINDEF/SAF comrades (NSF, NSman, Regular or DXO), especially if you are proud to be a part of this organisation.

An ambassador is someone who acts as a representative of an organisation. It could be in a social setting, such as when someone talks about NS at a dinner gathering. Or it could be online, such as when a friend shares a link to an article about the SAF. All of us, as members of MINDEF/SAF, can be ambassadors of the organisation - if we choose to speak.

Why Organisations Need Ambassadors

In a social media environment, organisations have lost their voice. In the past, organisations spoke loudly because they were the ones who can pay for commercials and press coverage, to publish their views. Today, anyone can write a blog and have it shared on Facebook or Twitter, the more controversial the better. And most of us have erected a personal message shield to help us cope with the overload of information. It works like this: all advertisements and official statements are lies! The mainstream media is a government mouthpiece. I only trust things that my friends say or share.
Ken Chow's mother would only believe what her brother says
An adaption of the Personal Message Shield by Social@Ogilvy

And so, just like that, MINDEF/SAF and most other large faceless organisations have lost their voice. Anything they say is met with cynicism and skepticism. When there is criticism online, accusations from any private individual, or even online taboids like The Real Singapore, it is difficult for the organisation to respond. It is like fighting terrorists or an insurgency; you cannot ask Public Affairs to respond to every negative comments, or an armoured battleground after every insurgent. And that is where we, as ambassadors, can step in. We can be the special forces.

But Won't I Get in Trouble?

However, most of us don't step in. In a recent survey I conducted over the MINDEF intranet, I asked respondents to complete the sentence, "If I see something negative about MINDEF/SAF Online …"

About 20% of respondents would act as ambassadors to clear the air, however 70% never thought to respond, or were afraid that they would get in trouble. The good news for us is that you won't get in trouble for defending the organisation. You may not even get in trouble if you criticise the organisation (more on this later). And in this, we are much more liberal than other government ministries and even many commercial companies. However, the important thing is to ensure you do not reveal any classified information. The detailed guidelines can be found in the MINDEF/SAF Social Media Code of Conduct available on eSILK.

5 Things Ambassadors Can Do

Being an ambassador doesn't mean you have to start a blog. You should really just be yourself, and depending on your comfort level, extend your personality online.

Just Be Yourself

When you hang out with friends, do you hide in the background, silently watching and listening? Not all of us are the life of the party, but most of us would chip in a comment here and there, and join in the laughter. However, I've noticed both through surveys as well as personal observations that MINDEF/SAF folks are very conservative online. Most of us are what I call silent cyber stalkers - we stalk our friends and leave no traces.

In my intranet survey, I found that almost half of MINDEF/SAF folks are silent stalkers. And only 10% post daily. But I personally believe the benefits of being active online far outweigh the risks, as long as you think before you post.
How often do you post something on Facebook?

Many leaders and commanders are finding social media to be an invaluable channel for engagement, especially for the current generations of NSF who are often more expressive online than in person. Online interactions can provide great openings for offline engagement - "I saw you were at The Killers over the weekend, how was the concert?" Often, Facebook statuses may also be the first indication that something is wrong, or that a soldier may be struggling with some personal issues and may need support.

Sometimes these casual online conversations can also yield unexpected results. One very fond memory I have occurred about a year after I handed over command of my battalion. One of my soldiers posted a company photo they had taken with me, as he was about to ORD. Of course I wished him well, and thanked him for his service, just as I would have done if I had seen him in person. I also complimented him on his positive attitude and energy - as a Singaporean who grew overseas and returned for NS, I was always encouraged by his passion to do his best in NS. And when he mentioned that he would be returning to Canada after watching his younger brother enlist, I said I hoped his brother would have a similar positive attitude.

What made this memorable was when a third person joined the exchange - his mother - who thanked me for my kind words.

I like to think that through this simple interaction, I helped both the younger brother and the distant mother start NS on a positive note. We spend some much money and effort on family engagement, but perhaps these are the simple and sincere things that really make the difference; not necessarily the open houses and home visitation programmes (which this mother could never have participated in anyway).

So the next time you see something of interest on a friend's timeline, perhaps you should consider hitting the LIKE button or leaving a comment, if you don't already do so. Overcome the inhibitions against trying something new, but be yourself.

Correcting Untruths

Another basic act of being an ambassador is to correct untruths. If your friends said something factually wrong about the SAF over dinner, you would correct them right? So why not do it online as well?

For example, MoneySmart recently had an article titled "5 Benefits that National Service Should Have (But Doesn’t)". There are some tempting ideas on that list that I would love to have, but they are just impractical. But then there are also things on the list that we already have, and to say we do not is to do MINDEF a disservice. So it was great that several servicemen stepped forward to correct the factual errors, such as the example below.

Similarly, there have been other instances where false rumours go around about accidents or suicides. If you are on the scene and you know it isn't true, why not say so? Our responses matter, because typically the first 5 comments that any post receives will set the tone for the rest of the commenters. So if the first 5 people are venting and complaining, with no reasonable voices, the rest will follow too.

Sharing Stuff Online

Parties are great places to share a joke and make everyone laugh. Some of us are better at this than others, and it just takes a bit of practise to open up. Similarly, Facebook is a great place to share things that make us laugh, provide useful information or provoke thought. There is a lot of personal value to online sharing, but that deserves a blog post on its own, so here is a very short teaser. According to The Psychology of Sharing by the New York Times, some of the top reasons people choose to share information are:

Every now and they, you see a really heart-warming story on Facebook. National Service especially is a time when ordinary people do extraordinary things. When you see something like that, why not share it with your friends? There is also a Facebook page called for sharing such Singaporean defence-related items, which you may like to join. Remember, the value of this community is only as much as what people (like you) share on it!

The original status message, before SGAG turned it into a viral meme

Sharing Experiences

Apart from just sharing things from others, a more pro-active approach is to share your own experiences online, especially for those in the units. Tell your friends what a great day you had, or something inspiring that happened at work!

Even better, include pictures (as long as they don't breach OpSec). The picture below is a great example of what 3 SIR has been doing to engage their soldiers over Facebook. After one of their exercises, they came up with "Core Value Awards" which the CO posted on his personal Facebook. The recipient is tagged, and the post includes a short write-up of what he did to deserve it. If I was 3SG Seck, I would feel so proud if my CO did this to say why he appreciated my efforts.

This is a great start, but with an understanding of how social media works, it could be even more effective to help the public understand NS. Firstly, this post is Friends-Only, which means only Wilson's friends can see it. If it was made public, all of 3SG Seck's friends and family could see it as well. Secondly, he only tagged 3SG Seck. If he had tagged the others in the photo, it would have appeared on their Facebook Timelines to their friends too. With these two simple actions, you could increase the reach of the photo by 100 times, sharing the commendable actions of 3SG Seck to inspire others, and show them what really goes on in NS. This is the side of NS we would like the public to see more of, not the self-serving venting that goes on in HardwareZone or Temasek Review.

Sharing Opinions

Occasionally an issue comes along that you are so passionate about that you want to tell all your friends about it, and hope that they will share your views. The online equivalent would be a blog, or for those who don't want to maintain a blog, a Facebook Note or even a Photo/Status Update would suffice. This takes a little more work, but if the issue matters to you, why not? For example, I really enjoyed a sharing by 3SG Benjamin Wong on Being an Instructor in the Military Police - it helps you appreciate the professionalism and dedication that our NSF have. And who can forget In Polite and Vehement Objection to 'Singaporeans Too Weak? LOL' - only someone with ground experience could write with such passion and authority.

Ambassadors are Not Yes-Men

I think it's important to stress that ambassadors are not cheerleaders or Yes-Men for the organisation. We should share what we believe in, not blindly trumpet positive messages. If we do that, we simply damage our own credibility as thinking individuals.

While I am proud to be a member of MINDEF/SAF, that does not necessarily mean I agree with everything it does. Expressing dissenting views is a grey area, but I believe there is a space for such constructive discussion, and I think it is positive for the organisation as well. So I cannot share clear guidelines on this, but I can share some personal examples which have not gotten me in any trouble.

A few months ago, a friend publicly posted on my Facebook timeline asking why MINDEF wouldn't let NSmen bring in phones with screens larger than 4.3". I was pretty blunt, "I think it's dumb too".

My friends all know that I take a very dim view of the way we manage our IT Security, which I believe will hurt the organisation in the long run. I think MINDEF is overly conservative, and I have expressed this openly to leadership of the highest levels. I have also shared my opinions online, so others can consider and build on the arguments. In fact, more than a year ago I wrote a Facebook Note (before I started by blog) titled "IT Security Policies I Don't Understand". Among other things, I question the logic behind restricting devices to 4.3" screens, and requiring cameras to be removed by the Telco. I think such incomprehensible policies will eventually translate into lower engagement and losing good people. You can access the link above if you are my friend and an SAF regular (yes, Facebook lets you do that).

Similarly, I am not shy to share my views that I think NS is its current form will not survive the changes our society is undergoing. In 2009, my essay "NS 2065: NS By Invitation Only" won the COA Essay Competition, but POINTER declined to publish it. (I was told in private that it was the most polarising article the editorial committee had ever discussed.) So in early 2013, I decided to put that essay on my blog as well, to spread awareness of the issues.

I don't have clear guidelines, but my advice for anyone considering this is to be polite, objective, and be sure that you are writing with the right intentions (e.g. not for personal venting but rather to improve the organisation).

Where Do You Start?

If you've read this far, I hope it means you have found this interesting, thought-provoking, maybe even a little contentious. If you have always been a silent stalker, and you see the value in being more active, why not start here? Leave a comment below! Disagree with me? Leave a comment below! You can also use the icons below to SHARE it on Facebook or other social networks.