Brands trendjack SPH CEO's 'umbrage' lashing to CNA reporter

A video clip of Singapore Press Holdings CEO Ng Yat Chung's response to a Channel NewsAsia journalist's question asked during a press conference yesterday has captured the attention of netizens in Singapore. According to a video circulating online, SPH said during a press conference that the revenue from the company limited by guarantee will now be channelled into the new constitution of the company with new goals. In response to this, a Mediacorp-owned Channel NewsAsia journalist asked what the goals might be, adding: "Does this mean that the media business will now pivot to emphasise editorial integrity, for example, ahead of advertiser interest?"

The journalist also followed up with a second question which asked if it was safe to say this move comes after various corporate initiatives to improve the sustainability of the business failed. In response, Ng said he "took umbrage" at the journalist's first question.

"There are reporters here who have received substantial funding from various sources, and I don't believe that you will describe yourself as bowing to the needs of advertisers in doing your job," he said in a rather stern tone. Ng added that SPH has always had advertising and it has never conceded to the needs of advertisers. In fact, it will always continue to provide fair, reliable and credible reporting. "The fact that you dare to question an SPH title for, in your words, conceding to advertisers, I take umbrage at that comment. Because I don't believe that even where you come from, you do not concede to the needs of advertisers," Ng said.

Meanwhile, TODAY, also owned by Mediacorp, reposted a snippet of the video on its Facebook page and TikTok account. The video garnered more than 2k reactions, 1.3k comments and 1.5k shares on Facebook, and more than 1k likes, 293 comments and 727 shares on TikTok. Most of the comments were negative, with some criticising Ng's tone when responding to the reporter and that his behaviour was "ungentlemanly" and "unbecoming of a CEO". Some also commented that Ng, who was previously the chief of defence force in the Singapore Armed Forces, responded as if he was still in the armed forces and it was unprofessional of him being the CEO of a media company. Ng took on the role of executive director and CEO on 1 July 2017, replacing Alan Chan who retired after 15 years with SPH. MARKETING-INTERACTIVE has reached out to SPH for comment.  A quick search of the word "umbrage" on Google revealed several videos and articles featuring Ng's response.

Since the news broke, brands are also having a field day with the word "umbrage", seizing the opportunity to promote its offerings. Here are some hilarious stunts we came across:

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The National Library Board also seized the opportunity to educate Singaporeans on other variety of words they should know to sound clever.

What does the CEO's response indicate?

CEOs are often seen as the face of brands and Ng's response comes across as "extremely thin-skinned", especially by calling out that the question came from a competing media outlet, Lars Voedisch, managing director and founder, PRecious Communications said.  He added:

You often see this kind of behaviour when spokespeople are under immense pressure and sometimes cannot publicly tell the whole story of what led to certain decisions. 

"It is simply surprising that he lost his cool to a point that it nearly becomes a personal attack with vigorous finger-pointing. It can create an image of someone actually hiding something – and deflecting that by going into attack mode," he explained.  To put this into perspective, Ng has only been with SPH for less than four years and had to witness a contraction of its core media business that got progressively worsened in 2020 as a result of COVID-19, Voedisch said. Also, he only took a 10% pay cut while most other CEOs took much bigger reductions. "Overall, it creates a picture of Ng being under immense pressure but also losing part of his humility," he said.

An appropriate response in such a situation would be to give a professional answer and link it back to the key announcement’s messages after acknowledging the question. This could be along the lines of only having a history and reputation for its editorial integrity which is of the highest importance not only for SPH, but also to him personally. "Ng could also ideally share how SPH continuously ensures that there are policies, structures and processes in place to defend the editorial integrity and proceed to suggest that restructuring will ensure the future of the media business with integrity at its core," Voedisch added. Meanwhile, if Ng really wanted to address that the question came from a competing media organisation, Voedisch said he could have done that in a witty way. That said, it is also recommended that spokespeople stay away from such discussions as you easily can come across as being petty.

Commenting under anonymity on the message this sends to employees, another PR professional shared that before holding a press conference around the move, SPH should ideally have outlined a clear plan for all its employees to understand the business model and protocols. "The pandemic has been an extremely stressful time for employees. Many who have onboarded haven't met their team members or have had the opportunity to understand the business model and protocols; some don't even feel a sense of job security during these times. A CEO's responsibility is to be empathetic to their employees at such times. SPH CEO's failure to be empathetic at such difficult times should sound alarm bells for future employees on how they will be treated at the organisation," she said, adding:

From a PR perspective, ideally he should have been trained on the kind of questions asked by reporters and prepared his statements.

" I feel he went ahead too swiftly with the press conference. Indeed, it is a significant new development but SPH should have held off any public engagement and worked on its next steps internally about staff compensation with the HR teams to offer a concrete next step. Such steps are commonly taken by companies to ensure they are setting a good example as responsible employers," she added. 

SPH recently announced it is transferring its media business to a newly incorporated wholly-owned subsidiary, SPH Media Holdings, amidst the ongoing challenge of falling advertising revenue. This involved transferring the entire media-related businesses of SPH including relevant subsidiaries, relevant employees, News Centre and Print Centre along with their respective leaseholds, as well as all related intellectual property and information technology assets. SPH said it will provide the initial resources and funding by capitalising SPH Media with a cash injection of SG$80 million, SG$30 million worth of SPH shares and SPH REIT units, as well as SPH’s stakes in four of its digital media investments.

The move has also received support from the Ministry of Communications and Information, which said that it is in the interest of Singapore and Singaporeans that the local media continues to thrive and deliver quality journalism. Minister for Communications and Information, S. Iswaran added that a professional, capable and respected local news media is critical to Singapore's national interest.

"SPH Board and management have concluded that the current media business model within a listed company structure is not viable, given global technology and industry trends, and on the need for significant investments in digitalisation and capability development," he said. He added that the goal is to help the local news media and its journalists adapt and thrive in the digital era while maintaining the high professional standards it expects and value.

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