Trump-Kim summit cost $20m, but could be worth $150m in earned media for Singapore

So as surreal as the last few days have been for residents here – the earned media benefits will come tomorrow, next month, next year, for the next decade and beyond, writes Mumbrella's Dean Carroll

Acres of newspaper (and online) columns, wall-to-wall television news coverage and social media posts waxing lyrical about Singapore thanks to 3,000 journalists camped in the F1 pit building in the city state. The sort of media you can’t buy, but can only earn.

Except Singapore did buy it. For a price tag of $20m – the cost of hosting including all the road closures, lost business, a nine-course ‘East meets West’ meal and 30,000 reservists on standby just in case – according to government officials.

And while some of the local population might be unhappy at footing the bill for the circus coming to town (American basketball legend Dennis Rodman taking the credit during a tearful TV performance anyone?) at a time when they are paying more for utilities and retirement, the investment was a no-brainer of the highest degree.

All those aerial shots of the cityscape from its most aesthetically pleasing angles repeating non-stop on international news networks and social media channels. All that talk live on TV news by respected hacks gushing about the golden beaches on the “tropical island of Sentosa, accessible by cable car”.

Yes, admittedly it was hyperbole detached from reality. For those of us living here know that you avoid those beaches if you actually want to swim in water not tainted by the ever-present container ships and oil tankers out at sea. We also all know that there are more beautiful islands than Sentosa nearby too. And we all know that cable car is not the only way to access the ‘tropical island’.

But that’s not the point. The point is – putting aside the geopolitical importance, as it seems doubtful with the fickle political personalities involved that this will be a Henry Kissinger meets Mao Zedong in 1971 moment for the world – that the S$20m will do more for the Lion City brand than any big budget Singapore Tourism Board marketing campaign ever could.

The place is well and truly on the global map. People who had never considered a trip here before now suddenly will. The curiosity levels have gone through the roof. Rather than catching a connecting flight through Singapore, more travellers will actually stay for a while to look around.

People will want to get a taste of the secret sauce that made neutral Singapore into the Switzerland of Asia. Combined with the goodwill generated by the Formula One Grand Prix night race, this could make Singapore more than just entry-level Asia for tourists.

Former global communications director at adtech firm Blis, Andrew Darling (now CEO at his own start-up West Pier Ventures), told me when I asked him what he thought the earned media was worth: “Given the blanket news coverage on the like of Sky News, the US networks, international print over three days of the summit, I estimate it to be around $100m. And if you take the past month into consideration in the lead up to the summit, Singapore must have earned at least another $30-50m.”

“Judging by the smiles on prime minister Lee Hsien Loong’s face and Monday night’s little trot around Marina Bay Sands, Gardens by the Bay and the casino with Kim, I’d say the government have pulled off quite a media coup. This has definitely changed the perspective of Singapore from a transient city to a destination.”

Meanwhile, Hoffman Agency general manager for Singapore Maureen Tseng claims the staging will actually prove to be priceless for the country. “You have two of the world’s most recognisable figures being filmed walking and driving through Singapore’s landmarks – and the massive publicity pre, during and post-event,” she explains.

“The fact that ‘where is Singapore?’ became of of the top trending search queries on Google is another unexpected bonus. And, unlike with many global events, both the West and the East were watching. Singapore has reinforced its position as a politically neutral, extremely organised and attractive destination. I don’t think the STB could have planned it any better. In terms of public relations value, the summit would have translated into way more than the $20m price tag.”

So as surreal as the last few days have been for residents here – Kim gazing out at the impressive skyline from the rooftop bar at MBS was a particular absurdist high point for me – the earned media benefits will come tomorrow, next month, next year, for the next decade and beyond. For with a progressive approach that runs through the country’s DNA, Singapore has probably pulled off the PR coup of the century so far. And it has done it in a way that no other Asian country could. 

Kim Jong Un taking in the view at the top of MBS

For sure, the strict laws against mass public protest played a role too. Rightly or wrongly, we saw only minor skirmishes whereas in other parts of the world the sight of Trump and Kim on home soil would have been like a honeypot for human rights protestors keen to get their point across to the world’s press corps.

Despite the naysayers and irrespective of whether you think a $150m earned media estimate is over-egging the pudding, you have to think that $20m was a steal to become the centre of the media universe for such a prolonged period. Let’s see how Washington does it for round two in comparison, should the two leaders make it that far.

As the legendary former British prime minister Winston Churchill once said: “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.” However, whether they do continue the entente cordiale or not, brand Singapore is the real winner in this strange episode of international diplomacy. Of that, there can be no doubt.


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