EventsCrisis Communication: The Role of Live Streaming in Singapore's Emergency Response

Crisis Communication: The Role of Live Streaming in Singapore’s Emergency Response

One of the most formidable events which can be classified as a crisis situation would be the Nanyang Technological University collapse of February 21, 2007. While this event was related to the construction of a new subway line and can be attributed to bad geological survey rather than an error of the administration, and had no fatalities, it still brought a great deal of public and media scrutiny to bear on the university. This spotlight on negative incidents can be very detrimental, and attempting to avoid such press is the main goal of crisis communication.

Crisis communication in the public sector can be anything from a construction company having a nearby road excavation to a town hall or environmental agency activity to repair or improve infrastructure, any of which may disrupt regular activity and affect public opinion of the organization. Singapore, being a country with a high degree of economic development and public infrastructure, is prone to crisis situations when these projects and repairs are underway.

Crisis communication is, by necessity, a focus on the management and avoidance of events which have potentially catastrophic consequences. These can have profound impacts on societies and communities, and slip-ups can severely affect the public trust in the organization responsible. Crisis management will usually involve a number of strategies, from PR to legal redress, and will span the entire duration of the crisis from inception to resolution.

Importance of Crisis Communication

At its core, crisis communication is a strategy designed to combat a event that has the ability to disrupt a person’s or organization’s ability to carry on with its regular patterns of behavior. No matter how big or small the situation, it is important that a timely conclusion is met so that the person or organization can continue to carry on with their societal norms. Every person and organization has a different level of what they consider to be a crisis. Crisis communication is applicable to all fields of work including public organizations, private sector, and even non-profit work. Defining an event as a crisis is usually dependent on the likelihood of a situation causing an organization to lose its reputation or public credibility. Two examples of organizations for whom any situation can be a crisis are the Singapore government and Singapore power sector organizations. With the Singapore government being a public organization, it is important to maintain a positive public image for the current rulers as well as show that the ruling party is in the best interest for the country. Power sector organizations in Singapore have strict guidelines on public image due to the fact that the power sector was a nationalized industry before it was privatized. Any malpractice by power sector organizations has a chance of causing reverting of their licenses to practice which could prove damaging to their current status.

The Role of Live Streaming

Furthermore, the widespread ownership of mobile phones with built-in cameras means that this technology has major potential in Singapore’s context as well as in an international context where visitors from countries with advanced mobile technology may be caught in a crisis in Singapore.

During the bombings, many TV stations in Britain switched to live footage from CCTV cameras in various locations around London, showing the same video and audio feed made available by the camera operators. This is essentially live streaming Singapore, where it is now possible for someone who is not a member of the media to set up a camera and make the footage available to the public.

Live streaming is a relatively new technology, one that has major implications for emergency response in Singapore. The impact of live streaming Singapore is yet to be successfully measured, primarily due to the fact that live streaming only became a reality in recent years with widespread broadband access. However, while the technology has yet to be formally examined in the context of emergency situations, the concurrent recording of the London bombings and availability of the video and audio footage indicates the potential importance of this technology in future crises.

The streaming of live video, where there is no time delay between the actual incident and the media shown to the public, provides useful information to the public and reduces emergency response time for agencies through clear, real-time audio and visual communication. Live streaming products such as web cameras and mobile phones can be set up by anyone during an emergency. The information can then be made available on the internet.

Benefits of Live Streaming in Crisis Communication

Prof. Zhang’s position indicates that live streaming could countermand suppression of critical information and enhance public awareness – factors that are vital to the safety and security of individuals in crisis situations. Live streaming also often allows for video archives to be stored and replayed at a later time, which can be of benefit for individuals who have missed the initial live broadcast.

In the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, there was widespread misinformation on the actual seismic occurrences and the potential risks of aftershocks and landslides at the affected sites. It was reported that Prof. Zhang Yuan, associate dean of the School of Public Administration and Policy at Renmin University China, criticized the Chinese government’s internet blackout in the early days following the quake. He stated that if live streaming technology had been available, the public would have been better informed, and this limited access to information had contributed to the declining public confidence in the government’s emergency response.

Live streaming offers real-time circulation of multimedia content. In the context of emergency response, live streaming enables communication professionals to provide real-time updates and information. This is especially critical for on-the-ground situations that unfold rapidly, such as natural disasters, where retrieval of real-time information can be crucial to saving lives.

Real-time Information Dissemination

In an emergency situation, a government agency can set up a live stream to provide real-time information to the public and only require an official with a suitable mobile device to be the broadcaster. The video or audio feed can be directed to the agency’s website, a video hosting platform, or a social media account and can be accessed by any user with an internet connection. This widespread access to a live video or audio feed may provide it with an edge over traditional broadcast media in reaching a global audience.

Live streaming refers to a live video or audio feed that can be accessed over the internet. A user can see and hear the feed in real-time, and often there is the ability to interact with the broadcaster. Live streaming need not require any external media infrastructure and can be set up at short notice from the source of the information.

In recent years, the increased availability and ease of internet access has made web-based communication an attractive option for real-time information dissemination. Social media, blogs, and microblogging have proven to be effective ways of spreading information in a natural disaster, but the most underutilized tool may be live streaming.

Broadcast media can be an effective way of spreading real-time information to a wider audience but may not be suitable for all countries or all situations. Live television or radio broadcasts require a stable infrastructure and a set platform for the media to access. These resources may not be available in a country where media freedom is restricted or where a natural disaster has destroyed infrastructure.

Real-time dissemination of critical information during a crisis is essential to ensuring the safety and survival of affected populations. Verbal instructions are often the most effective way of assisting affected people and keeping them informed. However, verbal instructions usually directed to local populations through loudhailer or door-to-door are often a very slow process and may not reach a wider audience.

Enhanced Public Engagement

It is said that public trust and confidence in the emergency response agencies are very crucial for the success of their efforts in handling any emergencies. One way to ensure better public engagement and trust is by constantly engaging and informing the public. Thus, the importance of live streaming in public engagement cannot be more emphasized. By streaming a live event, the public can watch, listen and participate in the event over the web in real time. Audio and video coverage allows the community to watch, listen and better understand what is happening at the emergency site, as it unfolds. This will attract more people to get more information regarding the crisis, thus increasing the quality of public engagement during the crisis. Another aspect of public engagement is the participation from the public. This can be seen through the real-time feedback from the public given during the live event. While the research does not involve crisis communication, it can be said that the same applies to a live event during a crisis. By allowing the public to participate as the event unfolds, there can be a greater understanding of the public’s perception of the event and better address any concerns or misinformation. This will include crucial information or messages to the public by having to consider public perception and addressing any concerns, thus resulting in better-informed decisions. Live streaming can also involve a Q&A session during or after the event to address any queries or concerns by the public.

Increased Transparency and Trust

During the SARS outbreak, almost a third of Singapore’s population was daily tuning in to live television updates from the Ministry of Health that would be broadcast over the nation’s four official languages. Live streaming over the internet to reach the same number of people would have been much cheaper and less tedious than producing broadcasts in all four languages. With a reduction in cost, time, and effort, the information thus far can be more widely disseminated and in greater detail. Availability of a greater amount of detailed information would be better appreciated by the public who are able to witness firsthand the efforts of the government in handling the crisis through the live images. This would ultimately create a greater sense of security and confidence in the government for the public.

Trust is an essential element for the government to maintain in order for effective crisis communication to take place. Trust often determines whether or not the public will choose to act on the advice given to them, so when the society is lacking trust in the government, the consequences can be grave. When activated, the current state of emergency in Singapore is announced through SMS and MMS as the population has become accustomed to receiving information in this manner. Singaporeans would also expect the same from the government in the event of a crisis, but using the existing method would mean withholding information from media to be sent directly to the mobile phones. Live streaming is by far a more effective method of reaching out to the public for it only requires a camera and an internet connection.

Challenges and Limitations of Live Streaming in Crisis Communication

One of the major challenges of live streaming is maintaining a good level of connectivity throughout the duration of an event. This is especially true during crisis situations where the level of connectivity is constantly changing as the situation evolves. In recent years, Singapore has enjoyed a very fast and reliable internet infrastructure with over 99% of households having broadband access. However, this does not mean that it is free from connectivity issues. In February 2015, both Singtel and M1 faced an internet outage which affected thousands of users, while in September 2011, all 3 telcos experienced a crippling internet slowdown due to damaged undersea cables. Do note that fibre broadband services and mobile networks are not always using the same infrastructure. During a crisis situation, the mobile networks could be prioritized for operational use by the emergency services, thus making it difficult for the general public to live stream from their mobile devices. With live streaming becoming more reliant on WiFi or mobile data due to the popularity of smartphones, any failure of the fixed broadband infrastructure could also hinder live streaming from PCs and laptops. Failure of any kind of internet service can be detrimental to a live stream as viewers will be faced with buffering, disconnections, and poor video quality. This could cause frustration and result in viewers abandoning the stream. In some cases, viewers may perceive a loss of connectivity as a termination of the live stream and be unaware that it is still ongoing. This was an issue faced by foreign media trying to live stream the World Cup 2002 to their home countries when their audiences became angry at the poor quality and disconnections.

Connectivity Issues

Broadband connectivity is necessary not only for the transmission of live-streamed data but also for the real-time video analysis that is now being developed to automatically identify and analyze the severity of events from live video footage and instantly provide that information as metadata to the streamed video. An example of this would be a live-streamed video of a flash flood scenario. If there were sufficient broadband connectivity, the live video footage could automatically be analyzed to determine the depth of the water and level of danger to people caught in the flood. However, without the necessary broadband connectivity, such technology would not be possible in disaster-affected areas.

This was the case at the 2011 Christchurch earthquake where, despite the New Zealand government being equipped with a large array of modern communication technologies, they had to resort to using PowerPoint slideshows to provide the public with visual information on the disaster and rescue operation due to the failure of new technologies in the absence of a high-speed mobile data network and high-speed internet access.

One critical factor that impedes the usage of live streaming in crisis communication is the issue of connectivity at the disaster site. The effectiveness of live streaming as a tool for crisis communication is highly dependent on the availability of affordable high-speed and reliable broadband services at the disaster site. Real-time images require high-speed internet access and data transfer, thus in remote and less developed areas, it may not be an available option.

Misinformation and Rumors

As publics attempt to make sense of crisis and emergency situations utilizing new media, they engage in sense-making, a process of gathering information to understand an ambiguous situation. Sense-making involves active information seeking and discussion and is triggered by an awareness of an information gap and a need to restore cognitive balance. Sense-making is functional for both overcoming information gaps and understanding situation-specific details; however, when attempting to fill gaps in situations of ambiguity, it can lead to the discovery or creation of unverified information and rumors. The presence of misinformation and rumors can be detrimental to public safety, and historically, misinformation and rumors have been a major issue in a number of crisis and emergency situations such as the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic and the 2010 US Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The dispersion of unverified and instrumentally relevant information statements can potentially alter publics’ mental models of a situation and result in unsound decisions and actions, and there is a need to ensure that sense-making utilizing new media does not result in the discovery or creation of misinformation and rumors in crisis and emergency situations.

Key to understanding the implications of using live streaming in crisis and emergency situations is to identify the shift in information architecture of recent years. Traditionally, a centralized and top-down information dissemination model is employed in crisis and emergency situations. Official sources convey information to the public via mass media, and the public is not provided with a direct channel for communication to and from official sources, resulting in publics mostly having to rely on speculation to fill in information gaps. Failure of central information sources to meet public information needs can result in the public turning to alternative unofficial sources of information, and recent years have seen a shift to utilizing new media for information seeking in crisis and emergency situations. New media enable the public to access a wealth of information from a variety of sources and provide a bidirectional communication channel as individuals are able to seek out information from official sources and also interact with others and share information. The shift to new media means that information from official sources is no longer the sole focus of publics, and publics may encounter information from a variety of non-centralized sources while using new media to try and make sense of a crisis or emergency situation.

Inspiringly, the live streaming of the Little India Riot by a voyeur to an audience of one is an example of new media being employed for crisis communication. However, while official sources are now utilizing live streaming for crisis communication, the existence of miscommunication and the ease at which rumors can be spread over new media is a cause for concern. Rumors are defined as unverified and instrumentally relevant information statements in circulation that arise in situations of ambiguity, and rumor propagation has been observed in various crisis and emergency situations. Research into the application of live streaming for crisis and emergency situations by official sources remains scarce, and it is unclear whether or not public perception of new media and the widespread of misinformation and rumors is a matter for consideration by crisis communicators. The concern remains that poor perception of new media by crisis-affected publics can lead to negative impressions of any information aired over these platforms and result in higher levels of misinformation as individuals tune into their preferred forms of media to try and make sense of the situation.

Privacy and Ethical Concerns

One privacy issue is that images of people captured by live news cameras may be stored in the public domain for many years and thus become a permanent record of a very traumatic period in a person’s life. Kearns (1996: 74) states that “there has been no reckoning with citizens about whether they wish their most painful and exposed images to become a permanent part of the ‘urban archaeology’ of disaster sites.” It is unlikely that those affected will have been asked for their consent, and those responsible for releasing the images may not have considered the potential harm such footage could have on the individuals concerned. This issue becomes more complex during times of war or civil unrest where broadcast images of atrocities may be used for advocating political change, trying war criminals, or simply as a record for future generations (Cottle, 2008). While there may be widespread consent for an event to be filmed and broadcast, it is essentially an uninformed consent as the potential implications of imagery may not be fully understood.

Case Studies: Successful Implementation of Live Streaming in Singapore

Crisis management stands out as one of the most significant factors for success in the implementation of live video streaming in a nation’s Emergency and Risk Communication (ERC) strategy. Even though it involves a number of technicalities and difficulties, this has been shown through the Singapore Case to date. This is largely due to Singapore’s National Climate Change Strategy, a national level plan formulated to address something we know to be a major consequence of climate change: an increased intensity in frequent weather-related disasters. Developed in 2004 and chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister, this plan serves to coordinate and strengthen Singapore’s existing efforts to plan for, respond to, and prevent disasters and their harmful effects. The plan outlines a whole national strategy for the response to disaster, including a legal and administration framework, prevention and preparedness efforts, emergency response and crisis management, and the forging of regional and international partnerships. In the years following the formulation of this plan, we have seen an exceptional example of how crisis management should be done in the response to the Orchard Road Floods of June 2010.

Crisis Management during Natural Disasters

This is also true in 2018. The Singapore Civil Defence Force regularly holds preparedness exercises for disasters, most notably the annual Exercise Northstar, which simulates an all-hazards approach to managing natural disasters and terrorist threats. During these exercises, live footage and updates were streamed to Singaporeans to assure them that the government is capable of managing such incidents. This is important as natural disasters are traditionally less frequent in Singapore and can cause a lot of fear and panic due to the inexperience of managing such incidents. Through the live footage, the public can witness for themselves the professionalism of the emergency services and military and create peace of mind.

There are numerous case studies where live streaming has proved beneficial. For example, the SARS outbreak in Singapore from 2002 to 2003. On September 2015, Trans island bus service had a training exercise simulating a bus crash to test the effectiveness of the exercise. The exercise was streamed live on social media with simulated news coverages, as well as snippets of the exercise by the Minister of State for Manpower and Defence, Dr. Amy Khor, who witnessed the exercise. He spoke of the effectiveness and realistic nature of the exercise and how, through live streaming, it would be easier to show the public the scenario and assure them that the government is prepared for some of the worst-case scenarios.

Emergency Response in Public Safety Incidents

Fuming Fengshen wiped out power and water supplies to thousands of people in the home of Government press officer, Mr. David Chua. In a situation which involved the lives of his fellow men and also family members, Mr. Chua activated the National Information Broadcast System; a system specially designed for public information and warning, by the public and community-based groups in the event of emergencies. The word translated in Mandarin to him was a bold and confident message conveying to the public that the Government was in absolute control over the situation. He was even more heartened when a local TV station broadcast live footage of the press conference while he was still at the microphone. By doing so, it ensured him that the public knew that the Government’s first concern was the welfare of the people. Under public safety incidents criteria, our most interesting case study would perhaps be the escape of a cobra from the Singapore Zoo. During this incident, ACRES had borrowed the live feed from the zoo’s security cameras and surveillance footage to be posted on local news websites. This was done to keep the public and also non-governmental organizational bodies informed of the situation and where the snake was moving. This was a proactive and efficient approach to crisis awareness which would heighten the confidence of the public.

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