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Honouring Ah Gong and Ah Ma

From penning getai songs to organising roadshows in the heartlands, a team at MCI tailored a public communications campaign to inform Pioneers about the Pioneer Generation Package (PGP). Officers from the PGP team, Nazrana Zainuddin, Matthew Chia, Grace Chen, Gerlynn Chan, Stellina Seng and Dhana Bharathi, share their experience working on an innovative communications approach to reach out effectively to their target audience.

Dressed in a baby pink tutu and a sleeveless magenta top, with a fuchsia floral clip in her hair, she belts out a tune in Teochew. It is a familiar sight for fans of getai star Lee Pei Fen, except she is not crooning the classic hits that have made her so popular with the elderly. Instead, Pei Fen is singing about the benefits of the Pioneer Generation Package and MediShield Life — conveying government policies getai style, while swaying to a techno beat with a posse of dancers. 

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MCI team at the making of the Teochew Getai music video starring Lee Pei Fen.

This music video was just one of the novel ways the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) used to tell senior Singaporeans about the Pioneer Generation Package (PGP). The package provides healthcare benefits to Singaporeans aged 65 and above and is one of the ways in which Singapore is honouring our Pioneers’ contributions in building our nation. Instead of running a traditional campaign to inform Pioneers about the details of the package, Ms. Karen Tan (Senior Director, Public Comms) and Ms. Michele Khoo (Director, Content Development) led a team of six young officers to explore a more creative way to assure Pioneers that the government was looking after their healthcare needs.

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MCI team lending their voices to a Chinese music video on the PGP starring Mark Lee and Sebastian Tan.

“Our Pioneers are a diverse group, so we needed to find innovative ways to communicate the PGP benefits,” explains Nazrana, part of the team from the Public Communications Division (PCD) who worked on this campaign. Surveys of Pioneers conducted by their colleagues in the Media & Research Division convinced the team that they would need to speak the Pioneers’ lingo to get their messages across. “One of our main challenges was to develop multiple engaging and memorable videos. To do this, we used light-hearted storylines, distinct situations, characters and dialogue that would resonate with our Pioneers.”

A campaign built on data

Figuring out how to speak to people over three decades their senior was a key challenge for the team. The team had not done a campaign focused on such a specific group before, says Stellina, who was new to the team when the campaign was kickstarted in 2014. All MCI Information Officers are regularly rotated around different government agencies and Stellina had just been posted to MCI after spending the first two years of her Public Service career seconded to the Ministry of Finance’s (MOF) corporate communications team. There, she had been involved in the design of the PGP logo and launching the Package. At MCI, Stellina found herself tasked to communicate the PGP. It became a whole-of-government effort that also involved the Ministry of Health (MOH), the Central Provident Fund (CPF) and the Pioneer Generation Office (PGO).

“I only found out I was going to continue working on the PGP on my first day at MCI actually,” recalls the communications graduate who specialised in public relations. “At least I was already familiar with the policy, because I practically had to learn how to do marketing communications from scratch. It’s something that I’d never done before.”

The team relied on research and message-testing to design a data-driven communications campaign that would effectively explain the PGP to seniors. Whether it was videos, advertisements or events in the heartlands, the team put each piece of the campaign through a methodical process of information gathering, audience profiles development, and small group message-testing before it was publicly launched. The impact of each communication piece was also assessed to help the team derive learning points and build on previous efforts throughout the two-year-long campaign. The data not only helped the team customise their content and medium for the audience, but also ensured their messages were effective, says Grace, another member of the team. One of her main takeaways from working on the PGP campaign is the importance of message-testing with the audience as many times as possible. “What you think looks and sounds best may not necessarily resonate with your audience, especially when you don’t belong to the target demographic,” she says.

One campaign, many approaches

The result was a first-of-its-kind campaign that was designed for Pioneers every step of the way. Besides advertising on the usual media channels, the team commissioned dramas on the radio, a medium popular with the Pioneers, and advertised on kopitiam tables in the heartlands where they often gathered for drinks. There were also separate campaigns targeted at caregivers such as family members and healthcare workers, who were often the ones providing information to the elderly.

The team also put out messages in different languages that spoke to different Pioneers. Just as singer Pei Fen sang about the PGP to the dialect-speaking community, singer-songwriters Shabir Tabare Alam and Taufik Batisah were engaged to perform specially-commissioned Tamil and Malay songs for their respective ethnic communities. Matthew, who had a hand in writing the lyrics of the getai-style music videos, recalls how unique the production process was. “These were very different from a typical marcomms campaign as catchy songs and zany video concepts, ranging from Chinese folklore (Monkey King and Spider Spirit) to disco glam, were used to frame the policy benefits,” he says. “I was struck by the spirit of creativity and fun that flowed through the whole production process, and the different skill-sets required among the production team, from song-writing to dialect proficiency.” 

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Pioneers and Taufik Batisah at the making of the Izinkanku (Allow Me) music video

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Backstage with Getai stars, Liu Ling Ling (left) and Wang Lei (second from left) at the filming of the Hokkien Getai music video.

Stellina adds that many Singaporeans were also surprised when MCI released the first batch of dialect videos, but she says it was a logical solution to reach out to seniors. “Research strongly showed that a proportion of Chinese Pioneers spoke only dialects.”

Connecting with the people

Their task may have been to inform, but the team strove to deliver their messages with a human touch. Beyond relying on hard data, Bharathi says the team had countless conversations with people outside of their department to informally gauge responses to their messages. “We received a lot of anecdotal feedback, like ‘My grandparents saw this ad and they said this and this’,” she says. “Other officers also watched our draft videos and asked their Pioneer parents what they  thought about them and whether they got the message.”

What the team found worked best were messages that “communicate to hearts first rather than minds”, says Gerlynn. “The most logical, reasonable message may not always be the best or most palatable.“ While there was a tendency to create information-heavy materials to explain a complex policy like the PGP, Gerlynn said the team realised early on that they had to attract audiences first through unconventional means. For instance, in “Love of a Lifetime”, a video released during the 2016 Lunar New Year, an elderly woman recalls the blissful younger days she shared with her husband, who had fallen into a coma. When he awakens in time for the festive season, the video concludes with the message that MediShield Life, like love, is about caring for a lifetime.

Stellina recalls crying while at this shoot, but what touched her even more was meeting Pioneers at the many weekend roadshows organised by her team to spread the word about PGP in the heartlands through games and one-on-one consultations. “When we went down for the roadshow, some of the Pioneers would tell me, ‘Oh, I saw this video and advertisement’, and you feel aww… they recognise our work,” she says.  

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MCI officer with Minister Yaacob Ibrahim distributing Hari Raya goodies to Pioneers at the Geylang Serai Roadshow.

Having worked on this successful campaign over the last two years, Stellina and some members of the team have moved on to their next postings. “It’s bittersweet to have seen something from the start to after it tails off,” she says. “I was really lucky to have been able to work on the PGP communications so holistically, in a sense, doing both media-side work as well as marketing communications work for the package.”

She adds that it has been immensely satisfying to see something she worked on in the office eventually connect with an Ah Ma in Bedok. “You get the sense that your work is being heard, someone is actually watching, and they are benefitting from it. There’s meaning in what you do.”

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The team that worked on the Pioneer Generation Package communications campaign. (Back row, from left to right) Stellina Seng, Dhana Bharathi, Matthew Chia, Grace Chen, Gerlynn Chan, Faith Tan. (Front row, from left to right) Lim Jing Ting, Michele Khoo, Karen Tan, Nazrana Zainuddin, Dennis Yim.)

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