The Power of Social Networks in Singapore

John Bailey is Managing Director of ICON International Communications, Ketchum’s exclusive affiliate partner in Singapore and Australia.

The power of social networks to mobilize popular opinion has been seen in situations as diverse as the Arab Spring and the 2008 election of U.S. president Barack Obama. But on a much smaller scale, it is clear that companies need to consider the ability of customers, employees or other stakeholders to express their opinions forcefully through online networks.

A recent example in Singapore showed the importance of thinking through the impact of management decisions on every stakeholder, and of being prepared to deal with the potential reaction if they feel ignored or mistreated.

Wildlife Reserves Singapore, the organization that runs three popular wildlife attractions — Singapore Zoo, Night Safari and the Jurong Bird Park — found itself at the center of a maelstrom of hostile media coverage and online outrage after deciding to cancel an award-winning promotion over Halloween.

Wildlife Reserves Singapore, which is majority-owned by the Singapore government’s investment arm Temasek Holdings, launched “Halloween Horrors” in 2007. The promotion featured themed displays at the zoo and the Night Safari with student models dressed up as ghouls jumping out to “scare” visitors. Halloween Horrors won a Singapore Tourism Board award for “Best Visitor Attraction Experience” in 2009 and 2010, and the Wildlife Reserves Singapore 2010 Annual Report noted its contribution to record-breaking attendance figures.

Wildlife Reserves Singapore’s newly appointed CEO decided to scrap the 2011 promotion in mid-September, citing concerns among sponsors and the zoo community that it had no relevance to their focus on wildlife conservation. The cancellation was announced just two weeks before the marketing campaign was due to be launched, by which time more than (Singapore) $800,000 had been spent on creating the displays and promotional materials. More seriously, 17 undergraduates at Singapore Polytechnic had spent the previous seven months preparing the displays and costumes, for which they were due to receive part of their final-year marks.

The CEO was warned of the likely reaction of the students, particularly as Singapore is one of the world’s most highly developed social media markets. The resulting flood of outraged online comments from the students and sympathetic bloggers quickly flowed into the mainstream news media, where it led to a 10-day series of negative stories, each more damaging than the last. At one stage, the CEO had to apologize to Singapore’s newly elected president, for drawing him into the controversy.

It was the first time Singapore had seen online criticism of a government-linked organization spill across into the mainstream media, albeit over a relatively trivial issue. It prompted speculation in neighboring countries that Singapore’s traditionally rigid control over public discourse and opinion is irrevocably breaking down, as locals have more access than ever to online sources of information and expression.

That is a message that has already been delivered to governments across the Arab world and further afield, although the implications have not yet been recognized in every C-suite.