The struggle for an adequate voice
Brand building, investor relations, corporate communications, media relations... all these multiple areas fall under the gamut of public relations, often thought to comprise media relations by those unaware of the sheer multiplicity of tasks PR encompasses.
"PR here today is narrowly defined as media relations", Edward Dixon, MD of Porter Novelli Singapore, says. However, in his opinion, it is more holistic and involves identifying influencers and communicating the message effectively to them. Media is just one of these influencers but most of the work PR people get in Singapore continues to be media related. While these influencers may have been easy to target a few years ago, they're no longer that easy to pin down as the web paves way for the average consumer to influence public opinion, thereby usurping the monopoly once held by traditional media.
Baxter Jolly, MD of Weber Shandwick, calls it the vastness of the forms, with everything being so interconnected today. One could argue that a few centuries ago, the birth of the newspaper or ‘journal' may have created a similar landscape but the internet also has speed on its side. The sheer vastness of the landscape coupled with the speed of information exchange would require the message to be communicated within a short time frame, making this one of the key challenges facing the PR industry today.
Within Singapore alone, Jolly observes that over the past five years, the buoyant economy has contributed to many companies choosing Singapore as regional headquarters. In essence, this creates a need for international PR agencies to service markets across Asia and large firms can boast of the breadth and depth of their network. As he sees it, local firms in the midst of expansion could also benefit from the unparalleled network that large firms have to offer.
On the other hand, Lena Soh-Ng, senior partner and one of the founders of Huntington Communications, highlights the progress made by local PR firms in this context. She notices the difference from about 15 years ago, when the scene was led by international agencies to now, when many local agencies hold multinational accounts. "Singapore agencies didn't know how PR worked then, but this has changed," she says.
It is interesting to note that with Singapore becoming a regional hub, there is a need for an understanding of multiple market nuances, a capacity that not all agencies have. Local or multinational, the capacity to navigate the cultural differences and complexities of Asia could be the key to survival.
Increasing specialisation in the PR world is also a growing challenge as many agencies specialising in technical PR or events-based PR crop up everyday. While PR as a profession is undergoing change, the larger macro-economic and social factors are making more pressing demands on it. This could explain the reasons for its increasing sophistication as it becomes a more valued business partner today.
Dixon identifies two major elements in its evolution: he notes PR is now seen as an integral piece of the overall marketing programme and there is more accountability for PR, tying back to business results. This can be more challenging, but at least agencies can measure their success in a more professional way.
However, some feel when it comes to the overall marketing mix, PR still receives less emphasis in this market than advertising or marketing. Dixon goes on to say "marketing takes priority in this region and rightly so, because PR is still a less mature industry here than advertising and marketing".
he reasons for PR not being paid adequate attention could also be simple ignorance of the true value it brings to the table. Few marketers may know that a solid PR campaign could cost them less than advertising but the general trend has been to use advertising in place of PR.
But this could be changing with PR receiving more weight in the overall marketing communications mix. Fulford PR sees it becoming top of the agenda with marketers including PR at the start of a new campaign.
The importance of PR versus advertising would be debatable and would depend on many variables such as the brand, the campaign, the market and the goal, as Melissa Tham, director, communications of Discovery Networks Asia points out. For example, Samsung may not allocate the same budgets to PR as it does to advertising, but PR continues to play a very strategic and important role in the company's marketing approach.
Linda Fulford, MD of Fulford PR emphasises PR could also work better when introducing a brand as opposed to the blatancy of advertising. For Irene Ng, director, strategic marketing, Samsung Asia, it is more effective in word-of-mouth marketing. Fundamentally, the prerequisite to making an intelligent decision is to be well-informed, Stephen Forshaw, VP, public affairs, Singapore Airlines says. Whether this is done through PR or advertising would be immaterial as long as the message reaches one's target population.
A lesser known reason for PR receiving less weight could be the size of the local market. But Dixon of Porter Novelli argues that with the presence of key media in the country, there's an inordinate amount of opportunity to influence and from a B2B standpoint, it is a critical market.
Irrespective of the order of importance attributed to PR, it does play an important role for many companies and has become a very established function within major corporations in Singapore, observes Catherine Ong, CEO of Catherine Ong Associates.
Beyond becoming an integral function, the role of PR is also undergoing a change. "What do you really do?", is a question that PR people get asked frequently. PR could mean a host of things to different people and like any other profession, day-to-day PR work could involve more mundane processes than coming up with a PR plan for all stakeholders.
From her experience, Ong says reality corresponds closely to the textbook definition. However, it can easily be said that a hiatus exists in PR like any other profession. Irrespective of the role one may hold, it is clear that PR offers a broad range of work that can be challenging.
The PR function as such is interesting as it stretches beyond that of agency work to in-house PR, with both offering their set of challenges. The traditional observation has been that in-house PR people gain better access to information than their agency counterparts but the differences may be more complex and polar.
Forshaw of Singapore Airlines thinks it works better because in-house people become part of the culture of the organisation. Reena Kumarasingham, communciations manager for CNBC Asia advocates his belief. "I understand the business and positioning a lot better," she says.
Alternatively, using an agency could bring some objectivity to the table. Other advantages, particularly for seasonal PR work, could be cost-effectiveness as hiring a new employee for a couple of weeks wouldn't be feasible. PR expertise in specific areas could also require agency staff as in-house PR representatives may not have the requisite knowledge to deal effectively with the situation.
Whether one works with in an in-house team or one outsources, Tham of Discovery believes there is a need for a level of trust and accountability.
Talking of the need for both in-house expertise and an external agency, Ng of Samsung identifies the benefits each brings. One of the areas she lists as in-house PR expertise is strategic guidance on the company's marketing direction, with the external agency providing strategic counselling, planning and implementation.
In the current marketplace, where there is a dearth of experienced PR personnel in Singapore, Ong thinks companies can't afford to be too fussy about whether they have in-house people or agencies doing work for them. With the local market inclined to favour the employee, PR agencies are facing high turnover. There tends to be many reasons for employees' moving around and the difficulties of the job may not be the most important. Employees could leave for a couple of hundred dollars and leave with the knowledge that there are open positions elsewhere.
This casual approach makes for people with less complete PR experience. In the order of things, human talent takes pole position and the market lacks both the depth of experience and knowledge. This poses more of a challenge to agencies in town than remuneration models or adequate information exchange between agency and client, though these can't be ignored either.
Talent becomes more crucial with the diversification of PR and the creation of new communications channels. With the growth of the online space, there is less control, forcing agencies and business to create more accurate messages that are diffused at the right time. In the current scenario, PR agencies wouldn't be able to send releases alone - they would need more creativity than that.
Different agencies and marketers have their approach and one size fits all would be redundant. Jolly of Weber Shandwick strongly believes an agency's work should speak for itself. Staying client-focused and treating one's employees well are other best practices he adheres to. "Worry more about the content and less about the context", Ong says. She firmly believes something newsworthy will attract media even if the press conference is held under an expressway. A beautiful door gift and a poor story may not bring the media to the table.
Fulford talks about the need for a good PR practitioner to be honest on what's achievable. She thinks this could be one of the main reasons for PR getting a bad name. "We don't control what gets published", she says. Jolly thinks it is linked to a pure lack of understanding. PR professionals may not do anything unethical but there is little understanding of what they actually do.
Some blame insufficient or imbalanced remuneration models for inefficiency but this is fast refuted by both marketers and agencies. Without fail, all of them say clients are willing to pay for good service and maintain that inefficiency is not created by a lack of resources. What about information exchange then? Once again, I receive the appropriate answer. I devise that transparency is key to holding the house together and both PR agencies and marketers would need to be straightforward about their expectations.
PR is about professional service and agencies would need to work closely with marketers to create that synergy. No marketing communications campaign can be purely based on advertising or PR. For a campaign to work, it would involve a blend of both and in the right measure. Amongst the different values that PR brings to a marketer, one of the most important would be credibility. Few marketers realise the weight attributed to an article in the press or a slot on TV. They may want media to be monitored but not always understand the equation of fostering a relationship. Even advertorials are seen as credible but it doesn't take much intellect to devise the nature of such press coverage.
One of the last areas explored is the fair versus dark reputation of PR as opposed to journalism. Dixon fairly says it is a grey world. He talks of a tug of war between commercial versus social responsibility. It is not rare to hear of journalists moving to PR as the drawing power of PR attracts people from different backgrounds such as banking, engineering or biotechnology.
But have these people chosen a dark world? Not necessarily, I believe.
If done well, PR would face the similar pressures journalism faces, when it comes to putting down an opinion. But every PR practitioner may not have a credible message and not every journalist is receptive. What differentiates the two is the power of opinion. However true it may be, created and packaged opinion will not carry the same weight in the public eye unless the media gives it a voice. In no way does this undermine the weight of the PR message. Ironically, this may give it more importance, for if the targeted media assimilates and endorses the PR message, it is a war twice won.
PR is a powerful voice and should not struggle to be vocal.
Western Union Education Grant Program Case Study
The Huntington Communications-initiated Education Grant Programme for Western Union is one of the PR initiatives credited for turning what was previously seen as just another remittance company to a household name within the migrant community today.
Started in 2006, the Western Union Education Grant Programme is an annual programme that aims to provide financial assistance for the education of migrant workers' children in their home country. The grants cover one year's tuition costs, and are remitted to the home country of the recipient, to their nominated next-of-kin at no cost.
With the success of the pilot programme, which was open to only migrant workers from India and the Philippines, the number of grants was increased from 35 to 50 in 2007, totalling $25,000. Migrant workers receiving the grants were from the Philippines, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Thailand. Nearly 3,000 applications for the grants were received.
With this initiative, Western Union is known not only as a trusted money remittance expert within the migrant community, but also as a company that cares about its customers' well-being, as they work far away from home.
In the three years that Huntington has managed the account, Western Union has grown to command 65 agent locations across Singapore.
- Huntington Communications
- Catherine Ong Associates
- CNBC Asia
- Discovery Networks Asia
- Fulford Public Relations
- Singapore Airlines
- Weber Shandwick
- Porter Novelli