Inside Singapore: IPRS President Ng Wei Joo talks about culture, context, communication and the business of relationships in Asia
In the West, people focus closely on words and their meaning, while the Asian cultures leave many things unsaid, letting the culture explain. How does this different perspective affect the world of business communication?
It’s true that in the Asian context, words and details, for example, of a business contract may not be as crucial as the relationship and trust established through informal conversation, having a meal or drinks together, posturing and showing respect for cultural norms. The western task-focused/process approach may not work as well as the relationship-based approach, especially at the start of a business negotiation. Consequently, global business communicators who wish to practice in Asia will need to invest time to adapt to, and appreciate, the cultural differences that can influence the messaging and communication process. Cultural differences, regardless of geography, are meant to be accepted, not "overcome". An acceptance of this will help a communicator go a long way in being effective in his role.
Asian countries are a patchwork of different religious, social and economic contexts. Given this relevant cultural variety, what are the main challenges and issues for PR professionals?
As PR practitioners need to communicate using various mediums, there is the added challenge of ensuring that the meaning and symbols used in one language are accurate when translated into another language. They also have to be mindful the context of words, and nuances in meanings, for example, when communicating anything from gender issues to activism, religious or race, and press freedom. In Singapore's context, we have four official languages - English, Tamil, Malay and Chinese - and each has its own cultural roots and nuances, and peculiar interpretations that are influenced not just by the rich heritage attached to each language but also the potential minefields that come with the wrong use of the language. In Singapore, Public Education campaigns sometime have to be presented in four languages to ensure accurate transmission of ideas and messages.
What is the PR landscape like in Asia? And what are the distinctive features of the PR landscape in Singapore?
The PR landscape in Asia is no different from that of other economies, and has developed in tandem with the pace of economic development. Countries such as Singapore, Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong have a more sophisticated and advanced PR practice. Fast developing countries like India and China have experienced accelerated growth in the PR industry as growth of big businesses leads to greater demand for PR services. The growth and influence of capitalism and democracy in Asian countries like Myanmar and China also fuel the growth of PR. Cultural considerations aside, the practice of PR in Asia is no different from that in other economies. Expertise-wise, Asia does not lag any other economy; however, Asian practice has much to learn from the experience of developed economies like the US and Australia. Gone are the days when sophisticated PR departments and expert communication professionals are found only in global multi-national corporations (MNCs) with a presence in Asia; local companies, especially those with a regional or global footprint, have also invested in a solid PR or communications and talent infrastructure. Underpinning all this is the fact that many universities, for example, the Singapore Management University (SMU), the National University of Singapore (NUS) and the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), have set up reputable schools of communications headed by lecturers who are expert practitioners in their own right.
What is effective PR in Asia about?
Effective PR in Asia is no different from effective PR in any other part of the world. The tools and processes are the same: the practice will vary according to, amongst other things, social and market norms, and cultures. Effective PR in Asia is about supporting business strategy with a strong corporate narrative underpinned by solid key messages; it is about enhancing corporate reputation and a company’s non-financial asset value. It is about creating and maintaining a two-way dialogue with key stakeholders.
With half the world’s population, Asia has a great potential for communication. How is the relationship with the traditional media and with social networks such as Facebook and Twitter?
Traditional media, i.e., broadcast and print, are still very popular in Asia as many sectors of the population, especially the older generation, still rely on traditional medium as a source of reliable information. However it is not a uniform situation. Countries such as Korea, Singapore, Indonesia and Hong Kong have a higher usage of social media compared to less developed countries. However, social media is fast gaining ground in all sectors of Asia and, as literacy rate increases, together with growing affluence and the rising of the middle class, social media’s influence can only experience phenomenal growth. That said, it would take a while before the general population can be weaned off traditional media and come to accept what is published online as gospel truth. In Singapore, social media has yet to prove that it is totally credible, and many still rely on traditional media to confirm what they have read online. For example, while the last general election in Singapore saw an increase in public debate and discussion on the many online platforms most still watched or listened to the live broadcast of the results announcement on television or radio.
But this situation will evolve. Relationships with social networks in many areas of Asia are growing at a speedy pace. The higher availability and lower prices of smartphones mean that a great number of users can and will easily migrate to social networks for their communications needs. Another factor that has encouraged a closer relationship with social media among Asia’s population: traditionally, some major newspapers in Asia seen as closely aligned with the government point of view, causing many to turn to online news and other platforms for alternative views or news angles.
At the beginning of March you sponsored a conference on Social Media & PR. What were the main outcomes?
One takeaway from the seminar is the reminder that the impact of social media in the PR sphere cannot be ignored, especially in Singapore. According to a 2011 market research by Firefly Millward Brown, cited at the seminar, Singapore is one of the most “evolved” social media markets around the world. This research and the sharing at the Social Media & PR 2012 reflect the urgency for Singapore PR professionals to keep pace with, and understand, the social media platform that has become a functional part of the new Singapore lifestyle. Social media is where Singaporeans gather news, discuss social issues, arrange social gatherings, express their creativity, share family memories, and create professional networks and all aspect of life choices. This is similar from the experience in other Asian countries. Besides the Social Media & PR 2012 seminar, the IPRS also organised a talk by Prof. Dieter Georg Herbst on “Social Media & Branding” for IPRS members in May 2012.
On your website you mention some public and private sector companies you’ve been working with, such as the Ministry of Defence and the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore. What are the main activities and projects you offer them? What are the main areas of interest?
We have conducted customised courses for Singapore’s Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Education for many years. In fact, the IPRS has been promoting the importance of communication and related skills among all levels of the civil service –and not just among the leaders – long before PR training was deemed as essential training for all civil servants. Over the years, there has been an increasing awareness among public sector organisations of the need to be proactive in anticipating issues, establishing dialogue with key stakeholders, and explaining policies especially those that have an adverse impact on public life. For example, the Ministry of Defence appreciates the fact that national service (in Singapore, it is compulsory for males aged 18 and above to serve in the Army for about two years; this is called National Service) impacts the lives of many stakeholders - from parents, to employers and even the wives and other family members of the national servicemen. The Ministry of Education knows that its teachers no longer just teach – but also have to engage students, parents (who are more educated and more demanding) and other stakeholders outside of the classroom. Alumni of educational institutions and even business associations these days have to be fluent in PR skills – if nothing else but for fundraising and marketing purposes to strengthen both coffers and brand. Overall, we have seen an increased appreciation and acknowledgement of the need for PR skills and knowledge at all levels and in all segments, of society.
For more information on IPRS, visit the website.