Last Friday, we were pleased to have Mr Brian San, Director of Communications, Strategy and the Career Agility Division for NTUC LearningHub in October’s instalment of our PR Leadership Series. NTUC LearningHub delivers over 200,000 training places annually to develop and equip workers with the necessary adaptive, technology and technical skills to remain competitive in a rapidly changing economy.

Over the 1/2-hour conversation, Brian and IPRS President Mr Marcus Loh delved into the rapid digitization of the education sector, and NTUC LearningHub’s role in driving upskilling amid Singapore’s economic transformation. Here are some highlights of the conversation:

What is the main adjustment you had to make, traversing between strategic planning and execution on your communication and operational plans?

Brian: Historically, Communications has typically been more outward-looking, in that we had to match our company’s narrative to the latest trends to tell our story in the most relevant way. This is still true.

However, many businesses have had to make significant changes in the last few months, sometimes completely redefining their customer segments and rapidly releasing new products.

As such, Communications teams have had to look inward, to make sure that we have our finger on the pulse of these changes and explain them to the rest of the world. As the core business moves ahead quickly to experiment and test new business models in a highly uncertain and fast-moving environment, it is vital for Communications to stay ahead of these changes to be able to explain the narrative compellingly to both existing and new customers.

I feel that this has been more of a challenge as there is so much uncertainty in the core business for many companies. How then would the communications team be able to tell a story when this area is so uncertain? There is now a unique opportunity for Communications teams to have that seat at the strategy table, to craft the narrative together with the business in an involved and hands-on way.

How has COVID changed the way you have done communications, outreach, and lead generation at LearningHub?

Brian: The short answer is a lot has changed, but the key channels have remained the same for us. Digital Platforms, PR (both traditional media and new media) and good stories are still important, even more so during these uncertain times. We have ramped up our research and our thought leadership, knowing that there is so much uncertainty out there. We hope to give people a bit more guidance from a skills perspective – what skills are in demand, and what are employers doing, etc.

While the “How” of what we are communicating has gone through some adjustments, “What” we are communicating has completely changed. For examples, we used to be entirely focused on Face-to-Face workshops. Over the circuit breaker, we converted up to 95% of of our courses to virtual delivery. Some of our target segments are quite sophisticated, but some other of our learners who were less tech-savvy faced some difficulties with digital learning. We must be here to help them through this seismic shift in how they learn, to figure out how we reach these learners and make sure they are assured in the quality and rigour of our content.

If not for COVID, virtual learning would not have been fully embraced by these institutions. What do you think needs to happen for educators to embrace disruption and teach about them?

Brian: While online learning has always been important, up until this year, it has not been the central delivery method. This year has brought it to the forefront. Many educators are realizing that there is real value in holding in-person training, in terms of interaction, group discussions and networking. You can replicate the classroom experience online and there is a lot of convenience in doing so, but it’s not truly the same. Yet, there are also many benefits to holding classes online, safety being a key concern. Many educators and institutes are struggling to come up with an effective blended model, combining the benefits of both. Everyone is now conducting their training digitally, so the next step is discovering how we can make the experience an excellent one.

What are some of the challenges you have faced crossing over from the private sector to be a leading part of the labour movement?

Brian: For someone coming from the private sector, the social side comes to the fore. It adds a degree of complexity as you are trying to balance multiple objectives. All social enterprises are still enterprises – we still need to be economically viable and not be a liability to the financial side. Once that baseline is met, we need to see how we maximize the level of social impact.

As part of communications, the biggest thing we can do is to have a compelling narrative to encourage people to learn. That is not easy since learning is not always fun. After a long day at work, I think many people would rather watch Netflix than attend a course on data analytics. When there’s so much stress at work and you have no time for family, who’s going to take that time to learn about blockchain or coding? That takes concentration and discipline.

Therefore, our role as communicators is to tell those inspiring success stories of people who can do so, to showcase the benefits in terms of career advancement and tap into them emotionally, to see what drives them to learn and weaving that into our stories to help others find that motivation.

 What do you find most challenging in driving out internal campaigns with regards to motivating employees to upskill while balancing work during this time?

Any time you send out a notice about training, most people will say they don’t have time.  We ran a survey of over 1,500 learners recently, and ‘no time’ was by far the number one reason for people not upskilling.

There are a few ways we have gone around that. In addition to finding out what are emotional motivators as mentioned above, one way is to make learning as accessible and low cost as possible. We are fortunate to be in Singapore on that regard, with Skillsfuture funding, UTAP credit for Union members, it becomes very affordable to take excellent-quality courses.  

Separately, NTUC LearningHub recently put up 100 courses online for free through our LHUB GO platform. We were staggered by the reception, within 6 months we had over 100,000 users, which speaks to us about the appetite for learning. Therefore, for internal communications, it’s about showing the convenience and benefits are there.

How have your methods changed in term of publicizing your courses in a fragmented digital media landscape?

The channels are similar, although the balance has shifted. PR and media coverage have become a key pillar for us this year, as learning has become more of a lifestyle choice. In addition to the main daily news outlets, we were fortunate enough to be featured in lifestyle magazines such as Esquire and Cleo, as well as blogs such as Alvinology. When Circuit Breaker came, when no one could go out, we made it to the ‘top 10 things you should do this weekend’.

We also began tapping onto the proliferating digital communities, where people share tips and job opportunities. We were fortunate enough to get into these communities and be mentioned by a lot of freelancers, for example. This influencer/ community outreach has been a significant redirection for us, from a communications perspective.

It helps us when a story is backed up by these influencers and communities. The key is that it has to meet a core need. When it does, people support you all the way. In this case, it goes back to my earlier point that Communications need a seat at the strategy table. Historically, businesses would create products from the business side of things and then bring in communications to market it and tell the story. We need to be crafting the narrative together with the business from the start.

What do you think is the relevance of a convening body like IPRS in the industry today?

I’ve always appreciated IPRS for being able to connect with fellow communications professionals, but what truly brought it home for me was that so many different professionals are going through the same things in so many ways. There are many solutions to the same problem, and we are all experimenting at the same time. A forum like IPRS where we can come together and learn from other people’s experiences in addition to our own, especially in such an uncertain time, is incredibly valuable. To have that forum to dialogue and share is fantastic.