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The Armed Forces and New Media: Enhancing the AFP Image

(Second of Two Parts)

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) can utilize new media in Winning the Peace, but its success is anchored on the people’s trust in the government. In so far as peace and security operations are concerned, in order to win the peace, the AFP has to gain the trust of the people. But how can the people trust an institution full of secrecy and afflicted by issues of corruption and blunder?

Trust is dependent on how the people view their Armed Forces. And this view is related to how the AFP projects and communicates with the Filipino people they are sworn to protect.

Public Sentiment and National Security

National security issues, like any other news, bring forth emotions. When issues arise and public sentiment erupts, there is the risk of escalating issues which can cause more problems. When news on national security goes public, public reaction and sentiment is to be expected. The AFP is all ears because it is their primary concern. The following are some examples of cases when public sentiment on national security concerns affected the organization and became a risk to peace and security.

When President Benigno Aquino III came into office with the promise of “Daang Matuwid,” the AFP was the first institution to receive the full impact of the citizens’ vigilance for good governance, as evidenced by the public reaction to the “Pabaon” system of corruption in the military. Since then, whenever top ranking officials of the AFP become involved in major corruption issues, attacks on the AFP as an institution rise and public opinion on the AFP drops. To rub salt in the wound, an untimely Pulse Asia survey on March 2011 indicated that the AFP is the most corrupt government agency in the Philippines.

When 19 soldiers were killed during the Al-Barka encounter in October 2011, emotions ran high among netizens and the general public. They mourned the story of how the soldiers fought a losing battle and died. Calls to go on all-out-war happened when the Philippine Government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) were still restarting the peace talks that eventually led to the recent Bangsamoro Framework Agreement. It was a good thing that the government has practiced restraint in going on an all-out offensive. If not, then the peace talks would have gone a different path.

Also, during the standoff in Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal) in the West Philippine Sea, tensions ran high both in the shoal and online. The Filipino public and netizens alike waged protests over Chinese incursions. Later on, the online conflict escalated and led to the defacing of websites in both China and the Philippines by hacktivists from both countries. The Philippine Government and the Navy had acted with care and cool heads and avoided an armed conflict with China that could have become bloody and costly.

The effect of public sentiment over botched military operations and affairs affects the military as a whole. The military, made up of individual men and women in uniform, is affected by the issues it faces.

My Take: Tarnished Honor & Troop Morale

There is the danger that an institution’s credibility and image will be put at stake when events happen and emotions run high. In such cases, the AFP has either remained silent or issued safe statements over traditional media. Discussions and speculations continued in traditional media, and discussions circulated in public and evidently among netizens.

News brings forth emotions which can affect troop morale. When an armed encounter happens and many soldiers die, like that of the Al-Barka encounter, official statements from the AFP saying that there is no drop in the morale of soldiers are questionable. Bad news affects the individual soldier. Soldiers care for their fallen and injured comrades despite the distance of their assigned locations and units.

As news spread and go viral, so do the emotions that stir them. Soldier morale will rise or drop as fast as how news of corruption on its leadership or operational fiasco reaches them. Troop morale is important in keeping an effective military organization.

In general, the challenges confronting the AFP in communicating with the public revolve around its image, the impression it leaves the public, and its effect on the the organization itself.

Image Counts

After the era of Martial Law and EDSA Revolution of 1986, the AFP has to start from scratch in getting a clean image. The stories of human rights abuses abound and greatly tarnished its reputation. Also to compound these, are coup d’etat attempts during the administration of Presidents Corazon Aquino and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Also, political enemies or groups aligned with insurgents attack the AFP in organization in public by tagging them as butchers, abusers, and war criminals. It can be remembered that the image of the AFP is affected with stigma of Martial Law, which  remains and proves to be a tough challenge for the organization to hurdle.

As the AFP strives to improve its image as a more professional and nonpartisan organization, it has to maximize all efforts to counter all propaganda and allegations hurled against them.

New Media and the AFP Organization

Traditional media still remains to be the primary means of the AFP in communicating with the public. Publicity goes as far as press releases are published and spokesmen interviewed over print, radio, and television.

In 2009, the AFP started to operate a Facebook fan page. In 2011, the organization and some of its units became active in social networking sites that support their individual websites. There was a directive issued to make use of social networking among AFP units. AFP Chief-Of-Staff General Jessie Dellosa has an official Twitter account; the purpose is to bring the AFP closer to netizens. New media capability was enhanced and the AFP generated likes and online traffic. But eventually, because perhaps of neglect and lack of policies and guidelines over new media and social networking, the AFP presence online came to a halt and posting became limited.

Areas for Improvement

New Media can benefit the AFP as a public relations tool and as a platform to conduct advocacy campaigns. Public service announcements, official statements, and transparency are maximized if they are posted online and supported by social networking sites.

AFP already has a large following and it can be greatly influential as far as netizens are concerned. The AFP’s official Facebook page has over 20,600 likes while the AFP Twitter account has over 9,200 followers. The following are some tips on how the AFP can improve its online presence:

1. Reduce Formality and Secrecy; Increase Engagement and Openness

As a uniformed organization, formality counts in communicating with the public. Formality gives the impression of authority and discipline. But if the AFP needs to win the peace, it needs the support of the people. But how can it get public support if the AFP chooses to remain silent and alienate itself from the people?

The military organization is filled with top secret and confidential matters which can mean life and death and can even be detrimental to national security. Using new media to increase openness does not necessarily mean exposing confidential stuff or tweeting live updates of armed encounters.

Engagement and openness are necessary when it comes to public relations. When an issue arises, it is better for the AFP to engage the public, the netizens in particular, in discussion rather than fall silent and let them and traditional media speculate, which can cause further harm to the institution’s image.

2.  Tone Down Uniformity, Highlight Individuality

The United States Armed Forces takes pride in emphasizing that they are the best armed forces in the world but it can be noticed that the limelight is not in their officers, but in their enlisted personnel. Their sentiment over their armed forces can be summarized as “Stop the war, support the troops”.

Compare it to the Philippines, issues focus on “AFP Most Corrupt” and “AFP as human rights violators”. This is all negative to the military institution owing it perhaps to the maxim “Kasalanan ng isa, kasalanan ng lahat” (One’s fault is the fault of all). But there is a different side on which the AFP can try to emphasize. It is the stories of the individual soldier. Every soldier has a story to tell. And real stories of real people are the contents that can catch the attention of netizens.

The military as an institution drowns its members’ distinctiveness in a sea of uniformity. It trains men and women to essentially be in uniform, stand in attention, and move in formation. But if the AFP wants to connect itself with the public, it might have to strip the uniform to reveal the men and women behind the organization.

There may be no Internet connection in a jungle detachment or in an outpost in the West Philippine Sea, but a soldier’s life and the issues he faces can be understood. The maxim “Kasalanan ng isa, kasalanan ng lahat” can be forgotten and replaced with “Kabayanihan ng isa, kabayanihan ng lahat” (One’s heroism is the heroism of all).

3. Change the Discussion, Go Online

There has been a lot of improvement when it comes to being professional and nonpartisan, but the AFP has to guard its reputation from elements that seek to tarnish it with political motives.

As a military organization, it should protect its honor. Honor is a central tradition for a uniformed organization. Utilization of new media can be an avenue to protect this honor and enhance the AFP image. This two-way communication creates a dialogue. It may open up the AFP to online criticism as comments can be posted by users anytime. But the AFP can take it as a challenge to improve itself.

The AFP must not alienate itself if it seeks to redeem and improve its public image. An action of one erring soldier or corrupt officer does not and must not reflect the actions of the whole. Keeping issues to themselves and being silent on allegations does not help and only promotes animosity.

If the AFP seeks to gain the people’s trust, it should seek to be understood, and to be understood, they have to engage in a dialog. The AFP’s mandate is to protect the people and the state and there is nothing to be ashamed of about its noble duty. In its goal to make the AFP an institution every Filipino can be proud of, posting or tweeting can be a start.

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