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Grab comms head on ‘tough conversations’ and being the ‘voice of reason’

Many businesses are still viewing PR as a support function. According to a study done by Releasd in July, 40% of the 300 executives surveyed said they did not think that PR delivered good value to the business. On the functions that did deliver results, only 13% of the respondents placed communications among their top five.

Speaking at the Marketing’s PR Asia Singapore conference, Su Min Sng, head of communications, Grab said where PR professionals could proactively deliver value is in having the “tough conversations” with the business leads. This means stepping up during boardroom discussions to challenge business decisions and redefine the brand narrative, where and when necessary. Not doing so can cost the business greatly, explained Sng, who shared that like any other brand, Grab has had its fair share of hard knocks and learning lessons.

For example, in July 2018, the company experienced backlash from consumers for changing its membership tiers and its policy for earning and redeeming GrabRewards points shortly after the merger with Uber SEA, a move which Grab later reversed. Other times customers voiced their views was when the brand announced the ceasing of promotions, despite the company’s promise to roll out product enhancements that will create long-term value.

Sng explained that through various situations, the brand has realised that while business decisions need to be made quickly, communications teams must also have a “good tough conversation” with business leads before the decision is made to ensure they have a plan put in place if situations go awry. The PR function needs to engage business stakeholders early and be the “voice of reason”.

She added that in the world of data and growing distrust consumers often have against companies, PR professionals need to stop taking reports and research at face value, and be prepared to dive in with data teams, right from the start, to find the right “data proof points” to build a credible brand story.

Inherently curious

Another learning point shared was the need for professionals to be “inherently curious” about different aspects of the business. As Grab expanded rapidly beyond transport to the realms of finance and food in 2018, Sng knew her team had to step up to create an identity that explained the company’s longer term aspirations, and how the Grab business was evolving.

“[PR professionals] shouldn’t be shy to call out issues such as asking what the company stands for or questioning when business decisions are not clear. There has to be a strategy and PR can play a role in building a coherent story,” she said.

With the goal to define what Grab as a company truly is, the communications team at Grab engaged different departments to get their feedback.

While ideas such as “consumer tech platform” and “O2O mobile platform” surfaced, Sng’s team was determined to narrow in on something that can help stakeholders understand the company’s aspirations better. That eventually gave birth to Grab’s “everyday superapp” positioning.

She explained that most business leads across companies often desire to amplify the company’s achievements through PR, but PR professionals need to take it upon themselves to educate stakeholders about finding the right timings for communication, filtering out sensitivities, and educating about the possible implications of amplifications. She added that if PR professional prove themselves in those areas, they can build a trust and a long-lasting, healthy relationship with the business.

Adding on, Sng said successful communication is not always about garnering media coverage. For example, Grab recently met up with delivery partners and provided them with thank-you notes and gifts, but it was only shared on internal channels. The company also decided to arm its drivers with personal accident insurance, despite the high cost and low awareness because safety is something it stands for.

For Grab’s PR team, it was also important for the department to understand the broader business landscape and external environmental changes. One such example was the increased expectations for tech companies to use tech responsibly, and contribute to local communities. Sng and her team identified that this was a good opportunity for the company to emphasise Grab’s ongoing social impact initiatives and more clearly articulate its focus on improving people’s lives.

As such, in October, Grab introduced the “Grab for Good” social impact programme. Two flagship initiatives under the programme have been launched to date – a skills training and digital literacy partnership with Microsoft, and regional “Break the Silence” initiative, that enables the deaf and hearing-impaired to better participate in the digital economy through the Grab ecosystem.

When it comes to brand purpose, you need something that employees can rally around. That is more important than making a big PR play.

“Ultimately, if we can make sure there is an alignment to the overall growth of a business, the business leaders will always be open to what you have to say,” she said.

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