SCDF wins fans with its social media persona

Facebook page draws more than 57,000 fans with its creative posts

Lieutenant-Colonel Leslie Williams (from left) and Colonel Abdul Razak Raheem with the SCDF social media team. The team members have shown that they are more than proficient in pushing out their safety messages while entertaining their fans in the pr
Lieutenant-Colonel Leslie Williams (from left) and Colonel Abdul Razak Raheem with the SCDF social media team. The team members have shown that they are more than proficient in pushing out their safety messages while entertaining their fans in the process.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI
Mr Waris Ahluwalia holds his Aeromexico boarding pass.
Mr Waris Ahluwalia holds his Aeromexico boarding pass. PHOTO: WARIS AHLUWALIA/INSTAGRAM

Strait-laced. Boring. No sense of humour. Mention the social media accounts of government agencies and more often than not, that is the image one would have.

But not the guys at the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF). Not only are they proving more than proficient in pushing out their safety messages, they are also entertaining fans in the process.

Take, for example, a Facebook post last month about how eight off-duty firefighters sprang into action and extinguished a stove fire at Causeway Point.

The short narrative, which came with a moral and a photo of the fast-thinking men, has garnered almost 34,000 likes and more than 5,000 shares so far.

"When we started our page in 2008, social media was an after-thought," says SCDF's Public Affairs Department assistant director Leslie Williams. "Now, it is the front and centre of our communication efforts."

In 2012, as its Facebook page hit 10,000 likes, many of the posts found on the page were press releases and official-sounding statements. The page now has almost 57,000 fans, and the content could not be any more different.

So, what changed? One of the secrets of this success, says SCDF's Public Affairs Department director Abdul Razak Raheem, is possessing a genuine persona.


    #FEARISANOPPORTUNITYTOEDUCATE: Actor, model and jewellery designer Waris Ahluwalia was recently prevented from boarding his Aeromexico flight from Mexico City to New York because he refused to remove his turban. He insisted the airline make a public apology and engage in training employees about the Sikh religion. The airline has since apologised.

    #CHOOSEKIND: Two-year-old Jameson Meyer has Pfeiffer syndrome, a genetic disorder that is characterised by a fusion of skull bones. Unfortunately, mean-spirited netizens have taken to comparing him to a canine and are spreading his photo. This hashtag is part of his mother AliceAnn Meyer's fight back.

    #SINGLELIFEIN3WORDS: Twitter users took to the social media platform in the lead up to Valentine's Day to express their happiness at singlehood. "Pizza over everyone," read one Tweet. "Peace and quiet," said another.

Put it this way: If the page were a person, he (or she) would be witty, funny, informative, conversational and non-condescending in tone, and extremely knowledgeable in life-saving techniques.

This persona, Colonel Razak stresses, must be a permanent feature. "Those working in social media in an organisation may come and go, but the social media persona has to remain the same," he says.

The current team boasts just one full-time member of staff - social media administrator Faizal Kamal.

Aside from managing the Facebook and Twitter pages, Lieutenant Faizal also rushes down to the scenes of major accidents or fires to take pictures and videos to upload to the respective accounts.

"It is a passion," the 28-year-old says. But Lt Faizal is not alone. His team includes two civilian officers and two other uniformed senior officers who help him out as part of their secondary appointments.

Together, they also contribute to another factor in SCDF's success - speed.

The seven people, including Col Razak and Lieutenant-Colonel Williams, bounce ideas off each other in a WhatsApp group chat.

If an idea works, it helps greatly that the two supervisors - who have almost two decades of public communications experience between them - are on hand to give the go-ahead.

"It is a marketplace of ideas. Nobody has the monopoly on the best way to engage in social media in our chat," says Col Razak. "The current workflow speeds up the clearance process tremendously."

A female member of the team, who requested anonymity, said: "You have to find new and creative ways to drive home the message. And you don't want to sound too naggy while doing it."

That is why the SCDF page has been quick on the uptake when it comes to several memes such as "Be like Bill", where a stick figure dispenses pearls of wisdom in a Web comic format.

In another post, the page showed a photo of officers performing a height exercise. The photo bore a striking resemblance to a shot photography enthusiast Chay Yu Wei sent in to a Nikon contest recently, which turned out to be digitally altered.

While SCDF's post did not contain any overt references to the infamous Nikon image, the resemblance was not lost on its fans. "Love SCDF humour," said one Facebook user. "

This speed at jumping on trends as they start going viral, otherwise known as trendjacking, is also needed when it comes to managing bad press on social media.

Col Razak recalled an incident in January last year, where a fire engine got stuck in front of VivoCity shopping mall on a weekday. The SCDF issued a statement as soon as the team had a good grasp of the facts.

"You need to be upfront and honest in this age. We rather people hear the news from us. And sharing things that are perceived as damaging to you also helps your credibility," he says.

Another incident, he said, arose when a video captured an SCDF paramedic's lack of urgency in attending to a patient who collapsed while jogging in Woodlands last year.

It turns out that the patient was already being attended to by an off-duty paramedic who happened to be a colleague of the paramedic on duty.

"We clarified the whole thing within six hours. I told the team this was a race against time," said Col Razak.

The last ingredient to their success, Lt-Col Williams says, is to monitor closely what is uploaded.

Matters of national security are out of bounds, obviously. So, too, are issues on race and religion.

"You have to be very careful about pictures as well, and consider all angles. Netizens may spot nuances in our content and perceive it as offensive, and this can go viral quickly," he said.

Col Razak says he reminds his team members constantly to treat the official social media page as they would their own personal page.

"Honour what you post, and be mindful that the world is looking on," he says.

It is clear that while the team members' tone on social media is far from serious, they are certainly serious when it comes to the business of saving lives.

Meet SCDF's social media team http://str.sg/Z9HC

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 14, 2016, with the headline 'SCDF wins fans with its social media persona'. Print Edition | Subscribe