Why Sharing Authentic Stories Is Important

Talk to the media, share the authentic stories – and when bad news breaks, you’ll be all the more prepared to deal with it, says Ministry of Communications and Information Permanent Secretary Aubeck Kam.
Ever been interviewed by a reporter?

Mr Aubeck Kam has, many times. They did not always turn out well.

Once, as Director of Operations at the Singapore Police Force, he was asked at a media conference for a major international meeting, how Singapore was prepared for the threat of terrorism. “[With] as much force as is required to get the job done”, was his reply.

His words were later taken out of context to refer to how the government would deal with local demonstrations.

“These things happen,” Mr Kam, now the Permanent Secretary overseeing government communications, said with a shrug. “We clarified; the bosses understood. We’re not perfect and can say things which can be misconstrued. You have to accept that [risk management] is part of your job.”

He further observed: “[L]ife goes on. It may seem to be the most traumatic thing ever. But you’ll be surprised that after a week or two, the focus goes somewhere else.”

The media veteran – formerly Chief of the Media Development Authority (MDA) – shared this example when asked about the fear public officers have of making public speaking faux pas.

He believes that “anyone can speak to the media, provided the organisation gives you the position to speak on the topic you know about.” This is because the public wants to hear the experts, especially during security or public disorder incidents.

'I'm Not A Believer In Spin', Aubeck Kam

For instance, when he was at the Manpower Ministry as Deputy Secretary (2006-2010), he had the Heads of Department speak about their work. “If it was an occupational safety case… I would have the director of occupational safety go on record.”

To realise this vision, the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) is now training a pool of directors and senior managers (apart from existing communications specialists) to be accessible and ready to speak to the media.

“If you don’t practise, you’ll always feel you’re not ready,” he said, so don’t wait for bad news to happen to start engaging the media.

One way to build confidence is to get these officers to frequently share authentic stories of good work – which he said are aplenty. “When you’re able to get comfortable with the [media] environment, then you can handle a [negative] situation, which is a lot more tricky. Trust [is] also built up with the journalists.”

Demonstrating this yen to pitch good stories, Mr Kam had brought along a locally designed drinking bottle that had won the Singapore President’s Design Award to the interview. (The design sector falls under his ministry’s purview.) The bottle, he hinted, could be featured in our photograph instead of our usual A Cuppa With... mug. When that was met with gentle rejection, he laughed good-naturedly, and said: “Well, it was worth a try.”


Hot Button Issues

The ministry Mr Kam heads is a young one. Created in November 2012, MCI oversees the infocomm technology, media and design sectors, and the public libraries; as well as takes care of the government’s information and public communication policies.

Ever since its formation, MCI has had its fair share of hot-button issues, including complaints of poor mobile network standards. MCI oversees the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore, which regulates the quality of telecommunications services here.

Last October, a widespread outage in telecommunications services, caused by a fire at the Bukit Panjang exchange, affected SingTel, M1 and StarHub users. Many homeowners had their access to broadband, phone and pay TV services disrupted for days – raising much public ire.

Mr Kam, who had to ensure the telcos worked together to restore services as quickly as possible, said: “Your first instinct and hope is that it can be resolved in hours. [But] it can’t… it will take the time it takes. When you’re in that moment, you just accept that life is not perfect.”

At the end of the day, it’s the services that you deliver. No amount of window dressing or elegantly crafted press releases can solve a fundamental problem if policies or operational capability are not there to solve it.

Still, that was not his biggest challenge yet. “When you’re in the middle of ongoing discussions on differences in policy – whether it be online news sites which need to be licensed, or registration, or classification of content – debates can get very heated as the public responds,” he said.

On MDA’s announcement that it needed to register certain news sites involved in political activity, which some have criticised as “onerous” and muddy, Mr Kam’s stance is clear: Once the site operates as a registered company, it needs to be registered. “The only thing the regulator can do is to apply the rules consistently,” he said.

What about bloggers or websites that have a wide reach but are not corporate entities? The real concern, he said, is foreign interference in local political news content, which may take the guise of foreign investors in a corporation. Individuals are not corporate entities. “If the MDA imposed [these] requirements … on individuals… it would be even more onerous,” he said.

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Establish Trust

Mr Kam, who used to host Crime Watch in the mid-’90s, shared that his experience in his first job in the police convinced him that the Public Service cannot be distant from the public and media.

At the time, the police would conduct daily morning briefings with reporters. “It was a very useful way to establish good rapport with reporters. These days, unfortunately, too much tends to be done by email, which sometimes leads to less understanding.”

The process of establishing trust with both journalists and the community therefore involves sincere face-to-face engagement. A “human face” to public policies and proposals is also something that the public increasingly expects of its tax-funded Public Service.

While he wants to share good stories, using tactics to manipulate public opinion is not his cup of tea. He said: “I’m not a believer in spin.

“At the end of the day, it’s the services that you deliver. No amount of window dressing or elegantly crafted press releases can solve a fundamental problem if policies or operational capability are not there to solve it.”


What's in your cuppa?
Coffee, which I started drinking when I was 11.

How do you like it?
Latte (whenever possible).

Where do you have it?
In the office, I settle for Nescafe (it’s simpler and faster).

    May 12, 2014
    Wong Sher Maine
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