We were pleased to have Selvi R (Communications Leader, IBM ASEAN), as the latest guest in our PR Leadership Series.  Selvi’s 20-year PR journey took off upon completion of the IPRS Professional Certificate Course in nineties, her first formal introduction to a career in PR. She then went on to work with boutique and global PR agencies, before arriving at IBM in 2000 where she’s held country, regional and global roles that dealt with a multitude of audiences to advance the IBM brand. Selvi has come full circle with IPRS when in 2019 she became an Accredited Member of the Institute.

The half-hour conversation with IPRS President Marcus Loh covered IBM’s take on PR trends, thought leadership and response to the COVID-19 outbreak. We would like to thank Selvi for her generous insights, some of which are shared below:

Amid the COVID-19 Crisis, how has communications changed at IBM?

Although F2F interactions has certainly reduced, it has been smooth sailing at IBM. When COVID hit, overnight, over 350,000 IBM employees seamlessly made the switch to work from home (WFH).  We have been doing WFH arrangements since the 1990s and have invested a lot into the tools and the technology. Our topmost priority was figuring out how to help our clients, many of whom were stranded overnight. Communications has been instrumental in that regard.

Disruption will continue to impact the Communications and Media industry. How has these changes impacted the way IBM does Brand Stewardship?

Technology has certainly changed the way we engage with the media and our stakeholders.  IBM has a strong branding and we work hard to maintain this.  However, we do face stiff competition from time to time and there is a need to stay ahead of everyone and we constantly work on the latest developments.  We have proper performance measures in place which have been established earlier on and are constantly updated with newer tools and technology.

What are some new skills that communications professionals need to acquire to thrive as a high performing member of the IBM communications team?

Based on my experience, a basic understanding of data analysis and cloud computing is needed. Today, technology is something we all embrace. We recently launched a programme with Singapore’s Skills-Future where we help mid-career professionals reskill. These are all business professionals who need a bit of help from the IT perspective to become more valuable.

IBM is also actively supporting students and has recently implemented the P-TECH programme. Tell us a bit more about how IBM is helping students prepare for future workplaces.

The programme started in the United States where we were facing a challenge seeking out IT professionals. We went to the underprivileged areas and identified students who needed help. By partnering with academic institutions and working with the schools to develop the curriculum, we aimed to equip these students with IT skills and a degree. In Singapore, in 2018 we partnered with the Institutes of Technical Education (ITE) and industry partners to implement a 6 to 7-year programme where students learn about cyber security, data analytics, and AI. The response by the pioneer intake has been positive.  Ideally, once these students graduate, they will be hired by our industry partners.

How does IBM’s Communications Division work with its engineering and business counterparts?

When I first started out at IBM, I argued a fair bit with my colleagues.  It soon dawned on me that my colleagues were also experts who were passionate about their work. I have since learnt to embrace that passion.  By and large, communication is regarded highly in IBM.  One thing that is drummed into us is that communication should be a strategic partner to our business.  We should not do things on our own. Everything that we do should support the overall theme.  Similarly, the business units take our counsel very seriously.

If you had to articulate IBM’s sense of purpose in the world today, what would that phrase be?

IBM stands for progress. That has been the mantra since Thomas Watson’s time, and underpins everything IBM does. IBM will always advocate progress, be it in technology, diversity, and in equal opportunities.

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?

Throughout our history, we always face challenges. But human beings always overcome these challenges.  It might take some time, but I believe that these youths will surely get there. At the same time, youths need to be bold, to learn, to embrace and to adopt everything that comes their way. People tend to stop themselves because they feel that they cannot do some things. We can surprise ourselves that we do have the capability and fortitude if we try.

What is the relevance of a convening body like IPRS in the industry today, and what does it mean to be accredited?

I went through IPRS certification course many years ago. I was pleasantly surprised that IPRS has continued to evolve since then.  I was looking forward to the Institute’s 50th Anniversary celebrations. When COVID-19 hit, I was impressed at how quickly IPRS was able to switch to the online mode and continue to deliver content to both its Members as well as to non-members. Having worked for many years in communication, I see IPRS Accreditation as a foundation and an opportunity to give back to the industry. I am glad to be a part of it.