This Singapore Police Force campaign shows why language matters

Is language in campaigns more loaded than we think - or is it just a matter of differing styles?

Singapore Police Force (SPF) has released a new crime prevention campaign, and it's been drawing chatter on social media among citizens. 

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Images of various crimes such as shoplifting and rioting were plastered on posters across public transportation, reminding citizens of the legal consequences of those crimes. Perpetrators in the posters were seen to be wearing tags that indicate the number of years of imprisonment they might receive in accordance with the crime.

The bit that people are talking about is a poster on molestation (or ‘outrage of modesty’ as it’s legally referred to in Singapore) where the perpetrator is wearing a tag around his wrist with the words: ‘2 years imprisonment. It’s not worth it’.

The poster drew a comment from grassroots gender advocacy group Aware who said:

What about the price that she will have to pay in this scenario, which the poster makes no mention of?

Why are we putting a price on sexual violence at all, like it's a commodity to purchase and consume? Would one year's imprisonment be "worth it"? Or six months? What is inflicting harm and trauma upon another human being worth?

We desperately need a shift in the way we talk about and frame sexual violence.

This feedback resulted in a defense statement from SPF with the support of many citizens who claimed that the advocacy group was simply nitpicking on what was otherwise a "great campaign".

SPF’s statement included these comments:

AWARE has criticised the posters, on the basis that they focus on the punishment, and do not refer to the harm suffered by the victim. AWARE does not seem to have understood the purpose of the posters.

The posters are designed to warn would-be offenders, who are unable to exercise self-discipline or control themselves, regardless of their knowledge of the harm that their act will cause to the victim.

The visuals were designed to influence their behaviour, by telling them what punishment they will face. AWARE’s suggestion, on the other hand, is unlikely to have the intended deterrent effect on such offenders.

It is unfortunate that AWARE has chosen to make these public judgements against the Police without any attempt to contact us to understand our perspective, despite having worked with us in the past to enhance support to victims of sexual offences.

SPF’s statement drew a mix of comments from citizens who mostly defended their police, while a minority of commenters commended Aware’s effort to call out SPF, and continued to chide the police for starting a "social media war" over constructive comments from an organisation that is taking a survivors-first approach.

Aware posted a longer statement as a reponse to SPF which included these comments:

Putting a price on molest likens the victim to an object on a store shelf that can be purchased if one is willing to pay the price. The poster does not say that this act is wrong, only that it is expensive. This analogy has the effect of erasing the experience of the victim and any viewer’s empathy for the victim.

AWARE takes a survivor-centric approach that underscores each individual’s dignity and rights. And we would like to see all ads, public-service or otherwise, informed by that belief. Survivors have, in fact, written to us to share their discomfort with the posters’ messaging.

The 'subjectivity' of style

PRWeek Asia asked Singapore-based PR veteran Tarun Deo about his thoughts on the matter.

"This kind of debate and discussion about the style of our communications is a good thing. And I think, generally, all of us who are part of the industry need to be a little careful about labelling these things as controversial. I think these are all good discussions to have, because anything around style is subjective," he said.

"In this particular case, there's no quibble about the substance. [Both parties] clearly agree that this is something that's necessary. Aware didn’t like the style and the police force says, ‘hey, look, that's kind of subjective’. They didn't potentially think about it in the manner that the folks at Aware do. But does that make it wrong? I really don't think it does."

Deo, who is managing director, Singapore and Southeast Asia, for Golin, added organisations will each have their own style and that communications are never static. The style, however, will be tweaked accordingly to the sensibilities and sensitivities of the audience an organisation is trying to reach.

"The police force, in this case, has their own style, and that's why I say it's fine. As long as there is very little quibble about the substance," he said.

Regardless of whether a style is being castigated in public, Deo said that it’s important for organisations to listen to what their audiences have to say.

"Should you listen to the feedback? Absolutely. Should you make changes? Well, it depends on where that feedback is coming from," he said. "Reacting to that listening then is something that needs to obviously fit in with what your values are, what your style is, and whether as an organisation, you're willing to accept some of those changes.

"Once you’ve done that, your question then becomes, ‘Do I need to be defensive or do I need to apologise?’ Or do you need to go out and say, ‘Hey, guys, I heard you but this really doesn't fit in with what our thinking is? So while we appreciate your feedback, unfortunately, we aren't going to make these changes’. Generally, that's really how most public organisations need to react."

PRWeek Asia reached out to Aware but it declined to comment.


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