PayPal marketer calls on ‘lazy’ PR industry to read more as panel debates the state of comms

The APAC director of communications for PayPal called on PR professionals to read more broadly around their domain of expertise to gain a better understanding of consumers and clients, and develop a sorely needed capability: empathy.

L-r: H+K's Michelle Tham, Gabey Goh from Campaign, GSK comms lead Melissa Cheah, Yvonne Koh from PayPay and Riverbed's Karin Neighorn at SheSays last night

L-r: H+K’s Michelle Tham, Gabey Goh from Campaign, GSK comms lead Melissa Cheah, Yvonne Koh from PayPay and Riverbed’s Karin Neighorn at SheSays Singapore event at JustCo

In this story:

  • The era of ‘girls in high heels and short skirts’ is over
  • Growing without training
  • Clients are not as interesting as they think
  • Agencies need courage and common sense
  • Is content marketing worth the effort?
  • ‘Get off Pokemon Go and talk’

Talking at a well-attended SheSays event in Singapore last night, Yvonne Koh, who spent all of her career agency-side until joining PayPal just over two years ago, said that the PR sector is too narrow in its knowledge of consumers and business, which is resulting in “a lot of lazy work”.

“My question for anyone who aspires to make it in PR is, what do you read? If you only read about who you’re servicing right now, that’s a problem. Because your client is relying on you to form a different point of view. Your skill set is also the ability to empathise,” she said.

The ability for inhouse and agency PRs to put themselves in the shoes of the end user is critical, said Koh, whose agency roster includes Edelman and Tate Anzur.

“We need to be thinking not just about the service we’re trying to push, but the person who’s using it,” she said.

Building on that point in terms of PR agencies’ storytelling capabilities, Karin Neighorn, APAC director of corporate communications for tech firm Riverbed Technology, said that tech PR agencies tend to be focused on mega trends such as cloud and internet of things, but “very few are adept at telling stories about why” to give a story a broader context and relevance.

“It’s a skill that not that many people have. If I see it in a candidate, you’re hired,” she said.

Melissa Cheah

Melissa Cheah

That skill is even more important now that products and services are increasingly commiditised, leaving thought leadership and content as the main point of differentiation for brands, noted Melissa Cheah, director of global pharma communications at GSK.

In this sense, PR has fundamentally shifted, she said: “It’s no longer a publicity driven model, it’s a knowledge driven model.”

“It’s not just about being able to write and knowing the media – they are hygiene factors. It’s about being sensitive to broader business trends, understanding jargon and numbers and distilling information in a heart beat and putting it all together,” she commented.

Cheah, who joined GSK from Standard Chartered Bank under a year ago, said that the days of PR being associated with “girls running around in high heels and short skirts running events” are over. “That’s not who we are.”

Michelle Tham

Michelle Tham

Representing the agency side of the business was the outspoken boss of Hill + Knowlton Strategies, Michelle Tham. She began the session by declaring that in an era when brands are becoming publishers, it has never been a better time to be in PR.

“Clients want help telling their stories. Never has PR been more powerful,” she said, later adding that the fragmentation of media has meant that it is now more difficult to hire people who are proficient across a range of channels.

“When I see a candidate who’s a good writer, they’re usually less good at telling stories visually. But these days you can’t have one without the other. New media is putting pressure on us to tell stories in many different ways, and finding the right balance in skill sets is really hard.”

On the PR profession’s notoriously long hours for low entry-level pay, Tham said that each PR executive now needed “to count for two or three people” and that despite opportunities for the expansion of the industry through emerging disciplines such as content marketing, “it’s only going to get harder.”

This prediction that was echoed by Koh from PayPal. “I have bad news,” she said, addressing an audience some of whom were considering entering the profession. “I think we have to accept that the economics of the profession [PR] may not improve.”

“I say that because when I started out, PR was the stepchild of advertising. We were told, if you want to earn big bucks go next door. I don’t know if that will change any time soon.”

She Says event

Shrinking profit margins have placed businesses under greater pressure, and marketing disciplines such as PR are under greater scrutiny, with Koh warning that PR executives who are good at spinning what they do for a living, but less good at their actual jobs would be found out.

“Some people think they’re at the apex [of the profession] when they’re not really. Some people are gems and they don’t know it. You need to know where you stand in that race.”

“Spin does not pass through a baptism of fire,” she cautioned.

GSK’s comms chief Cheah said that PR people needed to continually look to upskill if they are to remain employable. “Be future ready. Make sure you keep learning,” she said, sharing her experience of taking a job in London that did not pay more but gave her valuable experience.

Gabey Goh

Gabey Goh

Skills development is not easy in a sector with a poor record of training its people, pointed out Gabey Goh, the technology editor of trade magazine Campaign Asia, who was flying the flag for journalism on the panel.

Goh, who shared that she started out in journalism in Malaysia with a salary of MYR1,800 (S$600 at current prices) a month, said that because training is almost non-existent in journalism, and not much better in PR, aspiring executives have to find ways to train themselves.

“Mentorship is important because training does not exist. They throw you under the bus,” she said before recalling her first day in journalism when she was sent to a press conference with no brief or guidance of any kind.

“You have to find your own training. Find exposure to the skills you need. I sat next to a sub-editor at 9pm just to watch him clear copy. You have to be greedy,” said Goh, who has worked at the Malay Mail, Star, Advertising+Marketing and Digital News Asia before joining Campaign a year ago.

As the lone journalist on the panel, Goh, who described journalists as “asset poor but experience rich,” was a voluble critic of PR agency practices. She was asked by panel moderator Meera Navaratnam, now a consultant at Accenture but previously a PR executive, how many of the pitches she receives she believes to be credible. Goh’s response: “None of them.”

Reflecting a not uncommon skepticism of PR practioners among journalists, she said: “Everyone is out to lie to us. From bare faced lies, to presenting a best version of themselves and their clients.”

“That’s what makes us very cynical and very suspicious, and over time, very bitter,” she said prompting a warmly amused response from the audience.

She lamented the PR industry’s lingering fondness for the traditional press release, recounting the response from some PR agency executives to Campaign Asia’s revamp of its website, which included the removal of a section devoted exclusively to press releases (Mumbrella continues to use the ‘FYI’ section for this purpose).

“What shocked me was that after the revamp so many PR guys said ‘it’s such a pity, it was so useful.’ My response was ‘why?’ Why would me copy-and-pasting a press release like a monkey be good for you just because you can say your item got published?”

“I still can’t understand why having a press release reproduced verbatim counts versus a genuinely interesting story and doing something awesome around an issue,” she said.

Goh said that PR agencies needed to show more of two key qualities, courage and common sense.

“Common sense to pitch relevant items, and courage to stand up to clients when they’re being idiots,” she said.

“Questions [from PR agencies on behalf of their clients] such as: ‘Can you capitalise the job title please?’ Well, no. Because it’s our house style [lower cased job titles].”

“You guys are the pros. If they’re [clients] not listening, what are they paying you for?” she asked.

Clients, Goh added, “are not as interesting as you think you are.”

She was referring mainly to startups, a sector she has covered for most of her career, which she suggested might be better off not bothering to seek media coverage.

“Focus on building your business. PR shouldn’t be your concern. Word of mouth is way more powerful and cost efficient,” she suggested.

“You can pitch to us all you want, and we appreciate your pitches, but nothing gets us [journalists] more excited than a story that we’ve come across on our own,” she said.

Tham from Hill + Knowlton said that her agency was often approached by startups that did not have interesting stories to tell, and seemed to agree that PR might not be the best option for them.

“We’re guilty of making startups sound like the best thing since sliced bread. But will it fly? If there’s a story there, it’ll find itself,” she said.

On the topic of brands moving into content marketing as traditional communications loses its edge, Tham said that agencies “need to be bolder to force the conversation.” Brands often view the transition into publishers as not worth the effort, she said.

Koh from PayPal, who conceded that she was more of the “old school” mould, questioned the level of resource and commitment needed to make content marketing work for brands.

“We shouldn’t immediately jump on shiny new things,” she said. “We need to respect the audience. If there is a need and value in constantly publishing content, then do it. If not, don’t.”

One of the problems with content marketing is that brand owners usually do not have enough senior talent in communications to manage it, she said.

“If a brand publishes content, it must be highly responsive to the audience. Often there isn’t a senior enough person internally who can make the call on whether the audience is engaged or fatigued,” she noted.

Karin Neighorn

Karin Neighorn

Karin Neighorn of Riverbed Technology was also skeptical about the wisdom of branded content. She said: “I don’t read content created by brands. I am read what journalists write, that’s my first source.” Although earlier she had noted that given the exodus of journalists from the profession, “We’re going to have to change the way we look at what makes a good story over the next five years.”

Goh from Campaign Asia noted that companies that are “slaves to reporting cycles” will invariably see content marketing as a cost centre, and will probably shy away from the long term commitment required to become fully-fledged publishers.

As for agencies taking advantage of the rise of content marketing, she said that specialists such as King Content and Novus would benefit while PR agencies may “suffer from their own reputation” as they continue to be pigeonholed the producers of press releases and media relations managers.

Singapore’s most powerful marketing platform, the Straits Times, was at the centre of a lot of the discussion, particularly regarding the creativity of PR agencies’ media choices.

PayPal’s Koh said that whether or not a brand used the paper was “almost a yardstick for the maturity of the client.”

“I need to show reach and targeted reach. So if it’s not the Straits Times, fine – but give me something else, a viable alternative.”

“What scares is that when I given an agency an open brief, and all they come back to me with is the Straits Times,” she said, reflecting the newspaper’s enduring position as the default media option in the mind’s of PR planners.

Going back to ways the PR industry needed to improve in Singapore and elsewhere in Asia, Koh said that agencies needed to stop relying so much on electronic communication and revert to more traditional methods, which she said are more effective in building and sustaining relationships.

“Get off Pokemon Go and talk to a living, breathing person and have a conversation that goes to and fro for at least seven minutes,” she said, adding that she is shocked by the reluctance of some PRs to talk on the phone to clients or journalists.

“It needs to be a human conversation. I know clients are busy and can be pretty nasty, but you live and work with human beings. So talk,” she said.

Neighorn, who like Koh has worked on the agency side of the business before going inhouse in 2014, said that the biggest PR recruitment headache in the region was hiring people with critical thinking ability, a point of view about her business, and crucially “the courage to say it.”

This issue, she said, was cultural. Junior PR agency executives who are willing to voice their opinion about a client’s business are “impossible to find” because of a fear they are speaking out of turn, Neighorn remarked.

“I don’t care what your role is or how junior you are. If it’s a good idea, I’ll listen,” she said.

The session as it happened on Twitter:


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