#PRAwards 2021 spills: Communicators need to be change-agents, says Duke-NUS

Singapore’s flagship graduate-entry medical school, Duke-NUS was the finalist for the category of “Best PR Campaign: Healthcare & Pharmaceuticals” in the recent PR Awards this year. While providing innovative education and impactful research, enhancing the practice of medicine in Singapore and beyond, the school also managed to leverage on its PR efforts to gain more brand recognition during the COVID-19 period.

The multi-pronged strategy the school used to, raise international awareness of its brand, and enhance its online visibility of its research findings, allowed it to see an increase in its profile and its scientists. This led to Duke-NUS receiving invitations to participate in key events such as Bloomberg’s Future Economy Forum and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Director of communications and strategic relations at Duke-NUS Medical School, Anirudh Sharma shared with MARKETING-INTERACTIVE some of the proudest achievements of the year, and what we can expect from Duke-NUS this year.

This interview is done as part of MARKETING-INTERACTIVE’s winners and finalists’ interview series for PR Awards 2021. To find out more about the awards, click here.

What would you say was the biggest accomplishment for the whole PR/communications community in 2020? 

Sharma: To say that 2020 was a challenging year for all of us would be an understatement. I would say just managing to stay afloat last year is a definite accomplishment.  Collectively, we faced the largest public health crisis in decades. Governments responded with decisive measures such as border controls, movement restrictions, while our individual lives were transformed by constant masking up, continuous sanitising of hands, reduced and distanced social contact, staying holed up in our homes…and more. And yet, here we are celebrating our collective achievements, surrounded by headline-generating campaigns, informative collaterals and effective communication strategies—all done while being kind and compassionate to each other, all done respectfully and safely. These are all, I’d say, our biggest accomplishments of 2020. 

Impressively, we continued to communicate effectively and efficiently while minimising physical contact during the pandemic, the communications community has stepped up their efforts in engaging their audience whether virtually or in-person with safe-distancing. From interviews to media briefings to conferences, going online became the default mode of communication in 2020.

Not only did we manage to continue engaging our diverse audiences, but also expanded our reach across geographical regions and time differences. This was crucial especially amid the tremendous uncertainty brought about by the unprecedented change to our lives. People were constantly on the lookout for information about new policy measures, the latest case counts and vaccine development.

We will all remember 2020 as a watershed year for the communications industry which saw the rise and dominance of digital media and the rise of clear and accurate science communication across all modes—digital and print—in particular.

What would you say was your proudest achievement of the year?   

Sharma: We–Duke-NUS Medical School–are Singapore’s only research-intensive graduate-entry medical school. We are home to students and staff who bring a rich diversity of educational and cultural backgrounds with them to our School. We help our students and researchers make greater things for the world every day.

We celebrate every success, however, big or small. In particular, I feel proud each and every time our team of science communicators enables our scientists to share their latest research findings and innovations with a wider audience. Among our many highlights (from co-developing a COVID-19 vaccine to supporting contact tracing efforts and decoding the genetic changes of SARS-CoV-2), the one that stands out the most is when the Prime Minister of Singapore commended our researchers for their work in establishing a hitherto unknown link between COVID-19 clusters in the community.

It was truly an honour for Duke-NUS, especially as we had to really tone down our 15th anniversary celebrations last year.

The communications team at Duke-NUS are at the frontline, sharing science that is evolving rapidly.

We take pride in playing our part in combating the COVID-19 pandemic by explaining the science, clarifying misinformation and myths, and sharing our opinions which can be useful for policy making.

What are some communications trends you see carrying on post-pandemic?   

Sharma: Living and working through a global pandemic has taught us a most basic fact about communications: We can achieve a higher level of collaboration and productivity when we communicate gracefully, with kindness and without judging others through our own lens. So while I am not sure if graceful communication is going to be a trend I sincerely hope it will be.

Communicators across industries have also adopted digital media in their campaigns, publications, and outreach strategies.

This trend is not going anywhere – digital media has shown us it is highly effective, efficient and its reach is beyond compare. My team and I are completely focused on making the best use of digital resources, tools and platforms.

Secondly, visual storytelling with tools such as infographics, animation, and digital assets such as videos has added a terrific chutzpah to our repertoire. There has never been a better time to proclaim that a picture speaks a thousand words.

Finally, another trend I have enjoyed during the pandemic year, though it’s not too widespread to be noticed prominently, is that more and more communication teams are dropping calculated, structured PR-lingo in favour of conversations, amicable language especially in social media. And that is refreshing and I hope more organisations and agencies will adopt this trend. Perhaps #WFH has really brought a gentle touch to our writing.

How will the role of communications professionals evolve as we move into a rather uncertain future? 

Sharma: During the pandemic senior leadership teams across countries and industries have seen first-hand how us communicators bring dry messages to life, make their speeches or town hall messages authentic and relatable, our social media campaigns go viral and that is really a vital reaffirmation of the relevance and vitality of our roles internally.

We will continue to be our respective companies’ change-agents in providing reliable, trustworthy information in a timely manner. In an age when everyone can access a sea of information, this will set communicators apart.

Communicators will take on an integrated role combining communications and branding to elevate an organisation’s brand name through a multi-pronged strategy. Enabled by digital media, communicators can now reach audiences across geographic areas.

On the flip side, crisis management is also emerging as a key consideration amid greater uncertainty. Those of us who delve into crisis comms know that while we type that holding statement in the wee hours of the morning, we also hope sincerely that it will never be used. But it’s this core skill that makes us become the solid metal in our CEOs’, Deans’ and Chairmans’ armours that forge the mutual trust and dependability, a hallmark of communicators’ relation with the big bosses.

What can we expect from your company in 2021? 

Sharma: We look forward to continuing our efforts to solidify Duke-NUS’ leadership in medical research. And we will continue to bring you amazing stories about our students as they graduate to join the compassionate and dedicated profession of healthcare as outstanding clinicians in Singapore.

Finally, we hope to continue to collaborate and exchange ideas with our peers to learn more and improve the quality and impact of our media engagement.