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On the Record: SPRG's Vivian Fok

On the Record: SPRG's Vivian Fok

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Vivian Fok (pictured), managing director, Strategic Communications Consultants (SPRG), gained her first exposure within the life of PR back in 1997, when she started off as an in-house marketing manager of City Telecom.

Fok was inspired and started to get interested in the dynamic nature of work and the ability to navigate complex communication challenges as part of the PR agency life. Her passion has only grown bigger with her restless personality - always seeking new challenges, and easily getting bored with monotony.

Now as an agency leader, Fok prefers getting involved in the nitty-gritty tasks as she hopes to present herself as a team player as well as a role model to her teammates.

Find out more about Fok's journey in public relations thus far and who inspires her. 

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: Describe your management style 

I’ve never been one who is afraid to roll up my sleeves and get involved in the nitty-gritty tasks, especially in PR. Whether it's editing press releases, making media calls, or even helping pack media kits, I believe that by immersing myself in these activities at the coalface, I gain valuable insights into the realities and pain points faced by my team. This hands-on approach allows me to better understand the intricacies of the work, identify areas for improvement, and provide meaningful guidance and support.

This can also help set a ‘role model’ blueprint for the execution excellence I expect from my team. When they see that I am willing to engage in the same activities they do, it fosters camaraderie and teamwork. 

This attempt to express a down-to-earth attitude and active involvement in the daily tasks of PR often surprises and impresses our clients. When I share insights gained from these mundane tasks, clients appreciate the firsthand knowledge and understanding I bring to the table. It builds trust, and reinforces our commitment to delivering exceptional results.

While I recognise the importance of strategic thinking, planning, and providing guidance, I would say that staying connected to the operational aspects of PR keeps me grounded as a manager. It helps me maintain a realistic perspective and ensures that my decisions and guidance are rooted in the practicalities of the work.

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MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: What was your first PR gig? 

In 1997, I had the opportunity to work as an in-house marketing manager of City Telecom. It was during this time that I had my first encounter with SPRG, which played a crucial role in assisting us with public relations for the company's initial public offering (IPO). This experience marked my first exposure to the life of PR agencies. It allowed me to witness firsthand the multi-faceted and fast-paced nature of PR agency life. 

The dynamic nature of the work, the ability to navigate complex communication challenges, and the opportunity to shape public perception through strategic messaging, all captivated me. It was a transformative experience that ignited my passion for PR and set the course for my future career.

Since that initial encounter with SPRG and my first taste of the PR profession, I have been fortunate to continue my journey in the field, expanding my knowledge, honing my skills, and embracing the ever-evolving landscape of PR.

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: Why a career in PR? 

One of the aspects that drew me to PR, especially in-agency, was the opportunity to work with a diverse range of industries and clients. We had access to a multitude of sectors, each with unique challenges and opportunities. This exposure to variety was a perfect fit for my restless spirit, as I am a typical Aries, always seeking new challenges, and easily getting bored with monotony.

In the world of PR, no two days are the same. The fast-paced nature of the industry keeps me on my toes. I thrive on the adrenaline rush that comes with handling high-profile PR crises. It’s a thrilling experience to witness a PR crisis unfolding in the media, and you have first-hand information and key participation. The satisfaction that comes from successfully handling a crisis is immeasurable. 

My love for crisis management was so profound that I even pursued a Master’s in Law to enhance my expertise. By deepening my legal knowledge, as well as developing my understanding of human behaviour, effective communication, and the power of storytelling to shape public perception, I could better serve my clients and make a lasting impact during challenging times. 

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: Who was the mentor who most influenced you and why? 

While it may sound cliché, I must say that the founder of SPRG, Richard Tsang, has had a significant influence on me. One of the most valuable lessons I learned from Tsang is the importance of trusting the team. He has instilled a culture of trust within the organisation, recognising the unique strengths and styles of different individuals. In an industry where micromanagement and control can be prevalent, Richard's approach of empowering his team members to excel and respecting their individual styles has been truly inspiring.

Tsang's dedication to giving back to society has also had a profound impact on me. SPRG was the first PR agency in Hong Kong to establish its own charity foundation with section 88. I had the privilege of witnessing not only the birth of this foundation but also Richard's unwavering commitment to leveraging our client network and agency resources to make a positive impact in the community. He fully understands and harnesses the power of PR to drive meaningful change through charitable initiatives.

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: Your biggest blunder in your career? How did you resolve it? 

One of the biggest blunders I encountered in my career was how I reacted to team members leaving. During the early days, we faced demanding work hours, resulting in a strong bond among the team members. However, as the business began to stabilise, some team members started pursuing other career opportunities for various reasons.

At the time, I felt a sense of betrayal and loss when team members decided to move on. I took their departures personally and struggled to accept the changes happening within the team. I saw it as a failure on my part to retain talent and maintain the cohesion we had established.

However, upon reflection, I realised that people come and go in any organisation. While their departures may not have been the happiest moments for me, I soon discovered that there were positive aspects to these transitions. Some of the team members who left actually became clients and brought business to the company. This unexpected turn of events made me realise that the relationships we had built during their time with us extended beyond their role as employees. Their trust in our capabilities and willingness to engage us as clients spoke volumes about the quality of our work and the relationships we had fostered.

Additionally, some team members who departed eventually rejoined with new perspectives and insights gained from their experiences elsewhere. Their fresh ideas and renewed enthusiasm contributed to the growth and evolution of the business. I came to appreciate the value of their journeys, and the positive impact they could bring back to the team.

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: Harshest thing said to you in your career? 

During my time as an Account Executive at Shandwick, I vividly remember the account manager frequently saying, "Vivian, that's not how PR works." Those words lingered in my mind for years, prompting me to question whether there was only one solution to a problem. Did creativity have to be confined within rigid boundaries? 

Rather than allowing the harsh critique to deter my ambitions, it ignited a fire within me — an unwavering determination to become the best of the best in the PR field. As I progressed in my career and assumed managerial roles, I made a conscious effort to respect and appreciate different working styles. I recognised that PR is not merely about skill sets; it encompasses the boundless realm of creativity.

In the world of PR, we have the power to challenge the status quo, break the traditional rules, and forge new paths to achieve remarkable results. This is what makes our profession so fascinating. 

As I reflect on that defining moment, I realise that the harshest critique can be a catalyst for growth and innovation. So, to all aspiring PR professionals, remember that critique, even the harshest kind, can be a stepping stone to greatness. Embrace it, learn from it, and let it fuel your passion for pushing the boundaries of creativity. 

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: Harshest thing you have said to someone? 

In the PR industry, every interaction, decision, and instruction hold tremendous importance. About a decade ago, an incident occurred where a client provided us with a detailed set of instructions via email. The expectations were clear. Unfortunately, to our disappointment, the account executive responsible for the task overlooked some crucial details. I must admit that frustration overwhelmed me in that moment. Out of exasperation, I asked the account executive to read the instructions aloud in the office, in front of other colleagues. My intention was to emphasise the importance of thoroughness and attention to detail.

Reflecting on this incident, it's no secret that the early days of our careers were filled with learning experiences. We all make mistakes, especially in the early stages of our careers. What truly matters is how we grow from those experiences. 

As PR professionals, we must foster a supportive environment that encourages open dialogue, collaboration, and a commitment to excellence. By embracing these values, we can nurture the next generation of talent. This then ensures they develop the skills necessary to navigate the intricacies of the industry successfully.

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: What is the hardest part of your job? 

One of the most challenging aspects of my job in the PR industry is striking a balance between client expectations and fostering creativity. At times, clients may initially express a desire for creativity, but later we are often met with hesitation or resistance from clients when proposing unique and creative ideas. They may have concerns about the potential impact on their brand image, acceptance from stakeholders, or the return on investment, etc. This can limit the implementation of bold and unconventional strategies, even when they could have significant potential.

However, as I gained more experience in the industry, I began to recognise the constraints and considerations that clients face as ‘in-house professionals’. They have multiple stakeholders to cater to, and often operate under strict guidelines and restrictions. Understanding these factors helped me develop a more empathetic approach and find a balance between creativity and risk-taking that aligns with their specific needs.

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By actively listening to clients, understanding their concerns, and providing clear explanations of the potential benefits and risks, I have learned to navigate these challenges more effectively. I have also become adept at presenting creative ideas in a way that addresses concerns and demonstrates how proposed strategies align with their goals and values.

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: Biggest misconception about PR? 

One of the biggest misconceptions about PR is that it's all about well-presented or flash-looking individuals effortlessly gliding through glamorous events or soirees. But, the reality of PR is far from the glitz and glamour.  

PR is a world where hard work, dedication, and countless hours of effort come together to create impactful campaigns and successful events. Imagine a team burning the midnight oil, huddled around a table with empty coffee cups, wearing heavy spectacles, hair disheveled from the intensity of concentration, and endless all-night What’s App calls and messages. That's the reality of PR.

PR professionals are the unsung heroes behind the scenes, orchestrating the seamless execution of events, coordinating with stakeholders, and navigating the unpredictable terrain of public perception. We're the ones strategising, brainstorming, and problem-solving to ensure our clients' messages are heard loud and clear. 

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: How do you measure your own personal success? 

It’s important to acknowledge that personal success in PR is not solely attributed to one individual. Success is a result of effective teamwork and collaboration. No single person can single-handedly create a successful event or campaign. The ability to foster a positive and cohesive team dynamic, where each member's strengths are utilised and celebrated, contributes to overall success.

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: One thing you would say to a newbie in the PR industry? 

"Stay hungry, stay foolish,” as mentioned by Apple founder, Steve jobs!

Why hungry? Being a PR professional means being a lifelong learner. In today's fast-paced world, technology has had a profound impact on our industry. Take writing press releases, for example. In the past, crafting a press release required starting from scratch, relying solely on your own creative thinking. But now, with the vast resources available on the internet, inspiration is just a few clicks away. And let's not forget about the rise of AI-generated content this year. 

The PR industry is all about creativity and thinking outside the box. Embrace your inner child-like curiosity and don't be afraid to take risks. Sometimes, the most unconventional ideas can lead to the biggest breakthroughs. So, let your imagination run wild, and don't be afraid to challenge the status quo.

Attend workshops, listen to podcasts, read industry blogs — immerse yourself in the world of PR. The more you know, the better equipped you'll be to navigate the challenges that lie ahead.

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: One thing you hate most about the PR industry? 

In the earlier stages of my career, one aspect of the PR industry that I disliked the most was the long working hours. The demanding nature of the job often meant late nights and sacrificing personal time for work-related commitments. It was challenging to strike a balance between work and personal life, and the constant pressure to meet deadlines and deliver exceptional results could be overwhelming.

However, as I reflect on those times, I also recognise the valuable experiences and bonds that were formed during those late nights. The shared dedication and drive to achieve excellence brought the team closer together.

Fortunately, with advancements in technology and a growing emphasis on work-life balance, the PR industry has evolved. While long working hours may still be a reality in certain situations, there is now a greater focus on employee well-being and creating a healthier work environment. Clients, too, have become more considerate of our work-life balance, understanding the importance of sustainable practices and the need for a well-rested and motivated team.

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: Have you ever wanted to try starting up your own PR firm? Why/Why not? 

The dream of starting up one's own PR firm is undoubtedly a common aspiration among successful PR professionals. Over the course of my career, I’ve witnessed several economic downturns, with the most recent one being the challenging period brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. During such downturns, I realised that being an employee provided me with a sense of security, as I didn't have to bear the burden of overhead costs and the inherent risks associated with running a business.

I consider myself fortunate to work at SPRG, where my boss has granted me a significant amount of freedom and autonomy. In fact, I set up my team back in 2004, essentially creating a marketing arm within SPRG. This experience provided me with a taste of what it might be like to have my own agency, without shouldering the full weight of the risks involved.

Working within an established PR firm allows me to focus on what I do best: crafting effective strategies, building relationships, and delivering for our clients. I can leverage the resources, reputation, and network of the firm to support my endeavours. Additionally, being part of a larger organisation provides opportunities for collaboration, knowledge sharing, and professional growth.

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: How has PR evolved over the last five years? 

Over the past five years, the field of PR has experienced significant changes and transformations due to the integration of digital strategies, influencer marketing, and data-driven decision making. These advancements have reshaped the industry and enabled PR professionals to deliver more targeted, impactful, and measurable results.

Another critical area that has evolved is crisis communication. The advent of social media has drastically changed the landscape of crisis management. News spreads rapidly through digital platforms, making real-time monitoring and swift responses crucial to mitigate reputational damage. PR professionals must be agile, proactive, and available 24/7 to effectively manage crises, engage with stakeholders, and control the narrative in an evolving media landscape.

Related articles:

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On the Record: Edelman Hong Kong's Delicia Tan
On the Record: Hill+Knowlton Strategies Hong Kong's Madison Wai
On the Record: MSL Group’s Miuson Chi
On the Record: Golin Hong Kong’s Carol Yeung

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