Ben Davis and the Singapore Ministry of Defence: A needless David v Goliath scenario in PR terms

Singaporeans support national service, but the government PR approach in relation to the footballer Ben Davis and his professional career at Fulham FC could have been handled better – claims Wesley Gunter of Right Hook Communications

Even if you’re not a football fan or have been trying your best to avoid World Cup fever over the past few weeks, you would have come across the name Ben Davis.

The situation faced by Davis has sparked vociferous public debate

He is the guy who signed a professional contract with English Premiership team Fulham Football Club only to be told that his request for deferment was denied and he has to serve his national service in Singapore before he can go off to play football professionally.

The internet is pretty much divided on this issue with many supporting Ben’s decision to proceed with his football career, even if it might mean having to give up his citizenship and others bashing him for trying to not fulfil his duty and serve.

Joseph Schooling's advice for Ben Davis

"Follow your dreams, follow your heart and do what you need to do." Olympic champion Joseph Isaac Schooling has some advice for footballer Ben Davis. http://str.sg/oAcj

Posted by The Straits Times on Thursday, 19 July 2018

I’m not here to take sides on this matter. The issue I have with this whole scenario is how the communications were handled by the Singapore Ministry of Defence and how it ultimately has blown up in their faces, possibly affecting its credibility as a government organisation and derailing what up until now was a heated – but generally civil – discourse on both sides.

According to an article in Today, Mindef’s statement is as follows: “(Benjamin’s) actions are meant to further his own professional career, not national interest. As his father openly admitted, he is looking out for his son’s future, not Singapore’s. They have no intention of returning to fulfil their son’s NS duties, especially if (Benjamin) is given a full professional contract after two years of his senior contract.”

Now that’s a pretty loaded accusation. Judging by this statement, you would probably get the impression that Ben’s father stormed into Mindef and told them basically to get lost. But here’s the plot twist. Ben’s father never spoke to anyone from Mindef at all, which means that Mindef’s statement of fact is nothing of the sort.

Rather, it’s the department’s interpretation and opinion. Soon after Ben’s father went on the record to the press in another statement: “It is unfortunate that Mindef has an impression that Ben would not return to serve his NS. I would also like to make it known that I have been working through the Football Association of Singapore, SportSG and MCCY over Ben’s deferment and have not met anyone from Mindef.”

I’m no lawyer but I’ve watched enough episodes of The Practice to know that if a witness’s statement is proven to be fabricated, their case basically goes out the window. And the same goes with a company’s credibility when giving potentially questionable statements to the press.

What I don’t understand is why Mindef felt the need to go on the offensive in such a ham-fisted way. They had the support of many Singaporeans on their stand when it came to the obligation and duty to serve national service.

That is until they decided to take an unnecessary aggressive approach and resort to arguably character assassination tactics to support their agenda. In my view, Mindef made three fatal public relations mistakes in their response to the Ben Davis saga:

  1. Not identifying a Mindef spokesperson

In reading all statements given by Mindef in the press, one thing is clearly missing like a lost Pulau Tekong soldier. Who is speaking for Mindef? In any media interview with an organisation, identifying a spokesperson is key in gaining credibility.

Who would you rather listen to from a company, a CEO or an intern? In this case Mindef is seen as a faceless organisation with no credible communications spokesperson assigned to speak on behalf of the organisation. This adds a layer of ambiguity to their messaging and makes them more difficult to relate to.

  1. Not sticking to the issue at hand

Part of Mindef’s press statements regarding why Ben was not granted deferment was this: “Mr Davis’ actions are meant to further his own professional career, not national interest. As his father (Harvey Davis) openly admitted, he is looking out for his son’s future, not Singapore’s.”

The big issue with this statement is the use of vague language like ‘national interest’. One of the biggest questions that appeared online was: ‘Are Singaporeans meant to do everything out of national interest’? Quickly followed by: ‘How is any deferment supposed to link back to national interest?’

Statements like these just open the door to more criticism of the entire system and a questioning of Mindef’s overall motives. Suddenly it isn’t Ben against Mindef any more, it’s everyone’s personal hopes, dreams and ambitions against them.

Mindef could easily have made themselves seem like the understanding party in this whole scenario by saying that ‘various solutions such as’ were offered to Ben during their conversation. But wait, there was no conversation between both parties. Which brings me to my final point.

  1. Misquoting statements

If the statements churned out by Mindef were in the form of an opinion piece in the mainstream media, it would have been a better PR approach to reach out to Singaporeans. Instead what was done by their communications team was to come up with in my view overzealous statements based on conversations between Ben’s father and other third parties.

If Mindef thought this aggressive approach to undermine the intention of Ben’s father in seeking deferment would get them more support, it sadly seems to have had the unfortunate effect of making Ben and his family look like the victims of oppression.

To an everyday consumer of news, these high-handed ‘opinionated’ statements make Mindef and Ben’s father seem like they are locked in a David versus Goliath situation, where a large military organisation is against a father who merely wants what is best for his son. Sounds like an Oscar-worthy movie script no?

Mindef’s saving grace could have been that Ben’s words had been misconstrued, if they had corresponded directly. But without any direct contact between both parties, these seemingly factually incorrect statements by Mindef are a poor reflection of its overall integrity. 

I hope the this episode will be the catalyst that makes Mindef revamp their overall communications strategy, especially when addressing issues with the public directly. As Singapore’s voice of the armed forces, which is an integral part of our society, Mindef needs to ensure that their communications are beyond reproach.

They must be a true expression of the core values of integrity and tradition that have helped shape Singapore into the shining beacon of success that it is today.

Gunter feels that the PR has been poorly handled

Wesley Gunter is public relations director at Right Hook Communications, an independent PR agency in Singapore – and this article was first published on his LinkedIn page


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