4 September 2020: Virtual Townhall (PR Leadership Series) – Tech PR Leaders

“Empathy” was the name of the game at last Friday’s edition of our PR Leadership Series which featured, for the first time, a star-studded panel of five Communication professionals from the technology industry:  Chris Lu (Regional Head of Communications & Marketing, AnyMind Group), Damien Batey (Director of Communications for Asia Pacific & International Video Security, Motorola Solutions), Prerna Suri (Head of Communications for ASEAN, Cisco), Wei Wei Chua (PR & Communications Manager, Oracle ASEAN), and Shelina Mahtani (APAC Communication Lead, Qlik). Moderated by seasoned PR professional and IPRS Accreditation Board Member, Kathy O’Brien (Red Shoe Communications), the hour-long discussion covered an array of issues, including the ongoing disruptions within the tech industry, brand stewardship amid a saturated digital market, and the human touch at the workplace during the ongoing the COVID-19 outbreak.

Here are some highlights of the conversation:

Amid COVID-19, how has communications changed in your respective organisations?

  • Externally – a shift in customer expectations.  Customers are starting to care less about what product brands are pushing and more on the value they bring to the community. “When COVID-19 first broke out, one of the main issues hospitals faced was the lack of sufficient personal protective equipment (PPEs) in their inventories,” shared Shelina. “Hospitals we worked with started putting data together to be able to track their inventories across each hospital and make the necessary swaps. Without that data, they would have had to call each hospital individually. Data and analytics made the process much more efficient as a result. During the last couple of months, these were the stories that had to be told.”
  • Internally – reliance on “over-communication”.  Without the usual cues from face-to-face communication, it was imperative for companies to proactively approach their stakeholders. “A lot has changed in our industry and with our partners over the past six months,” said Prerna. “We have become more transparent and open about our communications. Internally, we have been sharing more about our personal lives with one another. We need to be more human and realize that everyone is going through the same crisis but with very different experiences both at home and at work, with the boundaries between the two hard to define.”

How have you been collaborating with your technical and business counterparts within your companies during this time?

  • A valuable chance to forge stronger connections.  “It has gotten easier for us to connect with and schedule meetings with our stakeholders via a Zoom call because nobody could fly,” shared Wei Wei. “It was also a valuable chance to forge closer connections with our regional counterparts. A fun aspect was the ability to see each other face to face on our team calls, which were conducted twice a week. To keep things exciting, we also had themed calls, such as Fancy Head Dress. Having said that, everyone has gotten very “zoom-ed out”.  So our leadership always reminds us to take a step back and take time off as needed.”

Disruptions will continue to affect the communications and media industry for as long as Covid is with us. How have these changes affected the way your organisation does “brand stewardship”? 

  • Rise of Corporate Communication.  Notably, with the need to constantly engage stakeholders, Corporate Communication has risen in importance amid the crisis. “All of us needed to constantly adapt and evolve just like every other function in organisations. The pandemic started the idea of us being the ‘explainer’,” shared Damien. “More people started to realise the value of Corporate Communication, particularly in relation to internal communication. The rapidly changing media and political cycle induced by Covid-19 also forced the communications function create new story angles, embrace new platforms and upgrade its skills.”
  • Adapting to newer forms of stakeholder engagement.  Companies are starting to utilize virtual forms of communication and engagement.  Communication departments must evolve to meet those demands.

What are the top challenges in positioning your company or product/service as a leading innovative tech organisation?

  • Shifts within available mediums.  Many traditional media outlets have been badly hit by the pandemic. Some have been forced to cut staff or even close down. At the same time, newer media forms such as influencers, have become increasingly prevalent.
  • Differentiating within a saturated digital market.  “There are many brands in the market saying the same things. You only have to read a few articles to find the word “unprecedented” used in a sentence,” remarked Damien. “We had to work harder to create opportunities for our brands to intersect with what is happening in the economy and society.”

Many communication students will be graduating soon. They are likely to be disillusioned with the current job climate which has been badly impacted by Covid-19. What advice do you have for them?

  • Start with an agency.  Agencies remain the top recommendation by PR professionals for those aspiring a career in PR. “Agencies are the best place not just to learn, but to understand what you want to do in your PR career,” shared Chris. “In agencies, you get the chance to work across different departments and accounts, and understand what suits you best.”
  • A different beginning is not the end.  In the current job climate, side-gigs, contract roles, and alternative positions offer flexible ways to enter the workforce. “Rewinding my career, I took a job in newspaper advertising sales in the hope of becoming a journalist,” shared Damien. “I got in through the side door and was prepared to take on a job that I didn’t really want at the time – but that eventually helped me get the role I wanted in journalism. On the proviso that you are keen to learn and bring great attitude and energy, I don’t think anything will hold you back from being successful.”“I graduated during an economic crisis as well. My first role was in marketing, although I studied communications,” shared Shelina. “To be a good communications professional, you need to learn and be good in a lot of things. Don’t be overly concerned if your first role isn’t in communications.”

What do you think is the role of a convening body like IPRS in the industry today? How do you think these roles might shift?

Damien: I was a former chapter president of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC). The big measures we had were putting on high-quality events and contributing to professional development of our community. Remember, we are all volunteers, giving our time freely, but we are also energized by the idea that we can help the next generation of PR professionals. It’s the sense of the community that brings us together. Members and followers of professional associations should be prepared to give that same energy back.

Prerna: Amid this crisis, the role of convening bodies like IPRS becomes all the more important. We are all facing isolation within our own bubbles.  A lot has changed in our industry over the past six months. Having a body where we bring together our diverse experiences becomes more significant.