Institute of PR of Singapore president Stephen Forshaw on the role of PR, disaster management and brand journalism

Stephen ForshawStephen Forshaw is the managing director of corporate affairs at one of Asia’s most powerful investment firms, Temasek Holdings. He is also managing director of Temasek’s operations in Australia and New Zealand, and president of the Institute of Public Relations of Singapore.

In this interview with Mumbrella Asia’s editor Robin Hicks, Forshaw – who was comms chief for Singapore Airlines and Microsoft before joining Temasek – talks about how corporate communications is changing, how brands should respond to disaster, and why he’s a big admirer of Shell.

How do you define what it is that you do?

The name, corporate affairs, shouldn’t matter. Some people call it public affairs, others call it corporate communications. It’s ironic that we’re in the business is words, and yet we don’t have a common view on the nomenclature.

The communications leader of a company obviously needs to be a communicator – a storyteller, who can confidently represent the attributes of the brand. But unfortunately some slip into category of diary schedulers.

A communications person should be a spokesperson for the brand, and should be able to justify a seat at the management table. Often comms people tell me that they’re frustrated with not being involved in decision-making at a senior level. But that is often because they are not able to show their value to the function of the business.

How is the role corp comms changing?

The modern inhouse communications practitioner is now far more than just the person who deals with media calls. Handling social media engagement now means that they’re the voice of the outside world into the organisation just as much as they are the company’s voice to the outside world.

The role has become akin to that of an air traffic controller. You have a screen of issues in front of you, and your job is to track them. This requires a genuinely deep understanding of the business, which takes time to build. There is a huge learning curve for new inhouse communications people, who must learn nearly everything there is to know about the company. For PR agencies, it’s harder to go as deep into the business.

How much clout do you think the PR industry has in marketing circles in Singapore?

It’s on the ascendancy, but frankly it’s not where I want to see it. We’ve seen good growth in the profession and if you talk to agencies in Singapore, most can honestly say that they’re doing well. But I think there’s more opportunity for them to grow their role in the overall communications mix.

There’s always been healthy tension between marketing and PR. The focus of marketing is selling product and increasing revenue. There is an element of that in PR, but its most important function is brand reputation and trust. A good PR tactic is sometimes to pull back from selling for the long term benefit of the brand. But I’m not sure that in Singapore the communications chief is regarded as equal to the head of marketing, so that doesn’t happen as often as it should.

Can you give an example where companies should withdraw from the public eye for the long term benefit of the brand?

The aviation industry. It is an accepted code of practice that an airline will pull back from advertising for a period of time if there is a serious accident. There are some who say that this is a time that a competitor could take advantage. But if a customer noticed that, they would be revolted. The airline industry, as a whole, has done the right thing by adopting the practice of halting advertising in the wake of disaster.

For how long should a brand go quiet in the event of disaster?

That depends on the individual company. It’s difficult to have a standard operating procedure with a fixed period of time to respond to unpredictable circumstances. It may be the case that ads are already booked and in the public domain.

But individual businesses will have to make a call on when the right black out period is. The implications of Typhoon Haiyan for the Department of Tourism in the Philippines are huge, but they don’t want tourists to stay away.

Communications people need to look at all the issues, weigh up the potential outcomes, and make the right recommendation to management. Those recommendations should be considered alongside marketing, not as a subset of marketing.

Which brands do you admire for how they handle corporate communications?

Shell on TwitterShell. But most oil companies are good in this space. The difficulty oil companies have is that their impact can be so huge – think about the Exxon Valdez, Brent Spa and Gulf of Mexico disasters. There were elements in how those companies responded that could have been done better, but the way reputation management is inculcated at the highest levels of management in oil companies is something that other brands should try to emulate.

Nissan newsroomAnother company I admire is Nissan, which has brought the role of the storyteller to life in the communications function. They’ve created their own news channel, and built news properties that can be used like YouTube. It’s a great example of brand journalism.

Social media – good or bad for brands?

I live by the adage: in order to communicate with your customers, you have to go where they are. Yes, social media opens up brands to ridicule and nastiness. But the test for a brand is how it responds to that. Yes, it’s challenging for the first six to 12 months for brands in social media, but if you’re not there to hear what your customers are saying about you, you’ll eventually be left behind.

Social media allows for authenticity in communications. I flew back from the US recently and my bags didn’t make the connection. I tweeted to United Airlines that I wasn’t happy. United responded within the hour. All I had to do was fill in a baggage form. I said that I felt bad that I’d been charged an extra hundred dollars to check my bag in, but the airline said that I’d get a refund. From being an annoyed customer, I’d become seriously impressed.

Good PR in social media is not just about what you say to customers, it’s about what your say back.

What are your priorities for the Institute of Public Relations of Singapore in 2014?

I think we’ve got to do a better job at articulating the values and standards of the PR profession. We need to kickstart a discussion about what being a PR practitioner really means, and agree on practice standards. PR practioners recoil in horror at the idea that their measurement systems are tagged to those for advertising, but these are discussions we need to have.


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