Rise of the politicians' minders

Handler, gatekeeper, spin doctor  –  whatever they are called, media minders are playing a largely hidden but key role this general election.

More so than during the two previous GEs I have covered – in 2006 and 2011 – they are far more prevalent this time round in helping new candidates navigate their way around the media. 

There was one sitting in on my colleagues’ interviews with former defence force chief Ng Chee Meng and Temasek investment banker Sun Xueling, the People’s Action Party (PAP) candidates in Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC. 

Another exercised control over access to company executive Cheryl Chan, donning party whites in Fengshan. Interview questions are directed to him instead of to Ms Chan. A photo of her eating her favourite dish of laksa? He vetos it. Her schedule is very tight, he explains. 

Over at the Workers’ Party (WP) side, a woman stands sentry over interviews with its East Coast GRC slate as well as its Marine Parade GRC candidate He Ting Ru. We want to ask sociologist Daniel Goh about a prickly subject. She intervenes. 

Some of these folks are communications professionals volunteering their services. Others are experienced party activists.

For the most part, they play a valuable role as point persons for the media trying to reach out to candidates working with schedules on steroids. With just nine days of campaigning this GE, the politicians are juggling walkabouts, home visits, election rallies and little sleep.

Beyond that, these minders help ready the candidates for their media and public appearances, whether it is in giving feedback on their messaging or helping them focus on their strengths.

As Mr Gerald Woon, who has over 20 years of experience in the communications industry and is an “open channel” for some PAP candidates, puts it, these people are a resource for newbie politicians, most of whom may not have had enough media training and are “deathly afraid of being taken out of context”. 

With social media, the way ahead is even more treacherous. A public slip of the tongue or an unfortunate gesture, and one might end up being the subject of numerous memes.

The greater involvement of communications professionals in political campaigns in Singapore is also due to the growing professionalism of the industry here the past decade, explains Ms Cho Pei Lin, the managing director of a public relations agency. In the United States and Europe, there are PR agencies focused just on political campaigns, she notes.

Ms Cho and another colleague, Ms Ginny-Ann Oh, are taking leave to help some of the PAP candidates in this campaign, although she herself is not working on media matters yet. Ms Oh declined to be interviewed.

In the other corner is Ms Liane Ng, who used to work for marketing communications giant Ogilvy and Mather and is now with an advertising firm. She is helping WP. 

She said she began volunteering with the party after the last election and now heads a small team focusing on communications.

“Our role is to make the candidates look good, help them be themselves. (We’re) not there to censor them, but they get tired during the campaign so we help them stay focused and ensure their messages are on the right track. There are certain key messages they would hope to get put on media platforms and if we talk about certain other issues, they may get sidetracked,” she said.

Politicians would, of course want to put their best face forward, especially during an election campaign, and these minders help them burnish their public image. 

But one question is to what extent should these candidates - who are wooing voters to elect them as their representatives - be shielded from questions from the media?

Communications professionals can be immensely helpful when sitting in on media interviews. For instance, they take notes, provide information that the interviewee may not have and follow up to tie up loose ends after the event.

But that should be all there is to it.

Too often during this campaign, my colleagues and I have experienced these minders stopping the candidates from responding when the line of questioning ventures into what is deemed sensitive territory. This, even when the candidates themselves are open to sharing their thoughts.

At other points, they would even advise the politicians to rescind what they have said. 

This is, of course, annoying for journalists. But beyond that, it does not reflect well on candidates to have to be hand-held like this. 

As Mr Woon notes: “The role should be to help the candidates to focus on the key points he wants to make. 

“It is not so much interjecting, and saying, don't write that, which is counter-productive.” 

“After all, these are candidates who want to represent residents in Parliament, and people will wonder why they cannot handle questions directed at them.”