Public Relations in the C-Suite
Regional - In November 2000, Singapore Airlines (SIA) had an enormous crisis on its hands. The airline, which prides itself on top class service and safety, had a furious and distraught public to face as its SQ006 plane crashed in Taiwan's Chiang Kai Shek airport during take off, killing nearly half of its 179 passengers.
In the midst of mounting panic and distress, a relative of one of SQ006's passengers barged into a news briefing, demanding 'first-hand news' from SIA. Instead of allowing a policeman to haul the man out of the room, SIA's then spokeperson Rick Clements urged the former to let him stay and put his arm around him, as television cameras broadcasted the saga.
While Clements' heartfelt act has earned him deep respect in the public relations and media industry, it is also a striking image of how public relations, when empowered to move alongside company leadership, can play a key role in helping to steer a company through a crisis.
In an interview with Marketing, Clements reveals how he always received strong support and had a direct line to the CEO, as the PR lead in SIA. "When I first became manager of SIA's public affairs department, there were two executives between me and the CEO; later, there was only one. But from the beginning, I could call the CEO directly and he would often call me."
Clements talks about PR professionals needing to have strong relationships and trust with the media to communicate effectively, especially in crises. But for this to happen, the PR professional needs to feel empowered, ideally with the support of senior management, and unafraid to make the occasional slip.
Should PR have a seat in the board room?
Last year saw many blue-chip companies like HP, BP and DBS stumbling in their public relations efforts following their respective crises. Andrew Thomas, MD, Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide Singapore and regional MD, Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, Southeast Asia opined earlier that the root of the problem was CEOs and top management being too far removed from their PR and communications strategists.
In a video interview with Marketing, Hill and Knowlton's new Singapore leader Baey Yam Keng also outlined a vision of having PR occupy the 5th seat in the boardroom. "Traditionally, big companies have investment bankers, legal counsel, accountants, and management consultants involved in their c-suite planning. But we see that communications is equally important," he said.
Vivian Lines President & COO, Asia Pacific, Hill & Knowlton thinks that the trend is all the more pressing in Asia: "Asian C-suites have to communicate more widely today than they have ever done before; thus the demand for senior PR counselors and the credibility they bring as they focus on helping companies achieve their goals and mitigate risk."
"Even though the opportunities are enormous with PR poised to be the breakout player in this new era of digital marketing, there remains this tendency within the industry to think small. It's ironic; in my 21 years as a corporate communicator, I've never seen our profession stronger and more powerful than it is today, but not enough people in our field stake a claim to the leadership that can be ours if we transcend this stifling lack of efficacy about what we do for a living," said Bob Pickard, president & CEO, Asia-Pacific, Burson-Marstellar.
The Stick in the Mud
While industry leaders in the agency end are pushing for the change, there are certain hurdles for the industry to overcome before it is invited to the next top management pow wow.
Gregor Halff, associate professor of the corporate communication practice at Singapore's Management University says the C-suite dream is one that has been long-held by industry and but is also one that has yet to materialise. Halff says that while he sees more top leaders understand good communications, conversely, the PR industry was not understanding business better, limiting their relevance in the C-suite. "The bad news is that PR has said for 30 years that they need to be in the C-suite but still they are not there. While leaders understand more and more about communication, PR people still don't understand more about business, "he said.
Growing like a bonsai?
The reality is that the supply of experienced public relations professionals falls far short of the demand. "Crisis communication is one of many PR disciplines, and practitioners who are experienced in all areas of PR, such as issue management, investor relations, social networking and so on, are in short supply. Finding a candidate strong enough to head up a multi-faceted PR department and report directly to the CEO is a real challenge, especially in this part of the world," says Clements.
In a 2010 Hudson Salary report conducted across Asia, Singapore and Southeast Asia (SEA) was shown to have the highest jump in salary percentage from those being promoted from a managerial role to a senior role (78%) as compared to the increase in other countries like Hong Kong and Japan, where salaries only increase by 50% and 33% respectively. Halff believes these figures hint at the maturity of the markets in the latter two and conversely, the lack of maturity in Singapore and SEA.
Halff believes the more experienced PR professionals are being traded like "hot pies", and with the dramatic lack of people here, the same few people get picked.
"People who do manage to move are up are grossly thrown money at because there's not enough people to fill these roles." He also observes that a majority of corporate communications personnel on stock-listed companies are foreigners instead of locals.
"They're not growing higher, but broader," Halff concluded, likening the growth of the PR industry here to a bonsai, growing larger in numbers but not necessarily climbing higher in the ranks as a whole.
In the shortage of strong public relations professionals, what has happened in Asia is that CEOs and leaders are rising to become stronger communicators themselves. Figures like AirAsia's Tony Fernandes, Malaysian Airlines' previous CEO Idris Jala and CapitaLand's CEO Liew Mun Leong have proved to be fluent communicators with the media.
"A CEO needs to be media-savvy ...But not every CEO has that skill, and as we often see when a CEO speaks to the media - especially in times of crisis - a bad situation can be made worse through ill-judged or insensitive comments," says Clements.
However, the industry is still in transition, he adds, talking about how companies are needing to factor in social media, even for their crisis communications.
Halff thinks that investing in education will ease the debt, having started a Masters programme for the corporate communications.
Also, to gain credibility in an environment where professionals understand communications increasingly, PR professionals need to carve a niche to define and justify their role in the organisation body. "It is like what I once read on PR excellence in this book published in the ‘80s. It said, a public relations professional needs to be more like a dentist and not a hairdresser. Basically, anyone can cut your hair, but not everyone can be your dentist. Dentists solve problems no one else can solve, and that's what good PR should be like," he concludes.
Have you joined the campaign for free content?
Subscribe to Marketing and marketing-interactive for FREE: