IPRS At Shared Services For Charity's Annual Seminar at "Beyond the Words: Communicating Charity Governance and Transparency."
Keynote Address 2: Communication and Stakeholder Engagement by Ms Koh Juat Muay, President of The Institute of Public Relations of Singapore.
It is my pleasure to join you today and on behalf of the Institute of Public Relations of Singapore, the IPRS, thank you for inviting me.
My thanks to Liansim and her team for organising this excellent event.
It was lovely to see some familiar faces and make new friends this morning.
The people sector has the best people. The most dedicated and inspiring people I know.
I am proud and thankful for the charity sector. Since time in memorial, this giving community has been there for the poor, the less abled and those who seek a helping hand along the way. I too was a beneficiary in my early years.
Most if not all our social purpose is founded by people who saw a need and came together to do something about it.
The IPRS is no different. It was set up as a society in 1970. A bunch of PR people back in the early days of an emerging global nation of Singapore, got together for mutual support and to formalise a vocational body.
The mission is to advance the PR profession and to uphold practice standards.
Today, we have members from across communications disciplines – PR, internal communications, corporate communications, public affairs, marketing, brand communications, media and journalism, from both in-house and agencies.
The IPRS is concerned about and very involved in efforts to bring school and industry closer together. For this we have 10 student chapters with tertiary institutions where we hold talks, organise visits to agencies, and where our senior members are involved in mentorship and coach.
Nurturing the next generation of communicators is critical to the existence and growth of talent in the PR industry.
We organise ongoing content and networking events: IPRS Learning Luncheons online; IPRS Accredited Member’s Dinner Dialogues; cross-disciplinary events with fellow professionals in the legal, Human Resources and non-profit sectors, and conduct training in foundational and strategic communications skills.
We have two signature events: The IPRS PRISM Awards, one of the oldest PR awards in Singapore, set up in 1986 to recognise good PR people and their work, and The IPRS PRISM Summit launched last year in 2022 to promote knowledge exchange and networking.
PRISM is an acronym for Public Relations In Service of Mankind. We believe in communications for good.
It has been almost 40 years of being the PR person. The one who love words and writes occasionally. The PR industry has been good to me and provided me with a lifelong career.
These days I help to look after the IPRS and volunteer my time to serve the society along with 9 other Council Members.
So today, I thought I would just share what I have learned over the years from personal experience working in 13 different organisations, for many bosses and alongside many teams.
In sharing some tenets of good PR and communications, I would hopefully have addressed the scope of today’s topic, burning questions you may have and some.
- How do you move beyond words?
- How do you develop clear and effective communications?
- How do you build trust through communications?
- How do you manage transparency and accountability?
- How do you build support for your organisation?
First a word about the word stakeholders. If I can find another word to replace stakeholders, I would. But I can’t at this point.
“Stakeholders” is a hard sounding word not just because of its many consonants, only 3 vowels, it has become a blanket term to describe the people who matter to our organisations.
The picture you see on the screen is one of my favourite images. One that I use for most of my talks, one that I will reference as I go along. A picture tells a thousand words.
If stakeholders refer to the forest, then it is the trees we must look at. Rather than talk about stakeholder communications, we need to speak to the distinct groups of people who come into the life of our organisation.
We need to define and understand the difference and nuances in:
- Client Communications
- Donor Communications
- Volunteer Communications
- Public Communications
- Organisational Communications
Client communications is to me the most important and a top priority. How are you communicating with your clients beyond just serving their needs? Are you in-tune with how your clients feel about your organisation? Are they happy? Do they tell you anything? How do you gather their stories?
A close second is Donor Communications. Not stakeholder, donor. He or she or company donates the financial resources that you need to stay in existence. Longtime donors are as precious as they come, and we must communicate with them properly.
What matters to a donor is more important than what we want from the donor. They must hear from us on a consistent basis. We must tell them what we are doing with their donations. We must face them if they are unhappy with us.
In donor communications, bad news is good news. As least we are hearing from them. They are giving us a chance to explain and rescue the relationship.
What is important in volunteer communications? We need to speak to the real reasons why people volunteer. And that reason is, to feel good. People volunteer for themselves as much as it is to help others. Share the experience that awaits them when they participate in a programme or help with a client.
Volunteers volunteer to help fulfil a personal need. They are like our clients in some way when we help meet their needs through volunteerism. Far be it that we think volunteers are simply extra arms and legs.
We all love a good story. The public are moved by stories. One of the most hotly contested award categories in our upcoming IPRS PRISM Awards 2023 is the Best Use of Storytelling.
Build a story bank for your organisation. Stories about clients, volunteers, events. Interviews are the best – for short stories with impact. Keep these compelling stories ready and handy.
Public Communications is about authentic, good storytelling.
Organisational Communications is the gel that keeps everyone together. What is your organisation’s communications culture? Does it foster cooperation? Does it promote information flow?
Discovering and defining your organisation communications culture is a good starting point for effective employee engagement, onboarding board members and volunteers.
I like to take a holistic approach to communications and encourage you to do the same.
That communications must never be transactional, and it is better built if our organisation is well. The wellbeing of our organisation matters to communications. An ailing organisation does not yield good communication outcomes.
A healthy organisation looks very much like the picture – green, glowing and growing with strong roots and ample supply of sunlight and resources, open and welcoming.
How do you build and sustain a healthy charity?
Passion is your strength. It is your superpower. Most if not all charities started because someone is passionate about doing something about something. Solve a problem, lift a soul from the depths, start a movement for change. Passion keeps you going.
We must instil professionalism in all aspects of our work from the backend to the frontlines; from the leaders of the organisation to the staff who comes in part-time.
Professionalism keeps you in the game. It gives you the moral authority to continue to serve your clients, raise funds and do more. It helps you to comply with the charity code of governance and respond to regulators.
The 3rd P.
Positive communication is the energy you need to keep your organisation going. Positive communication is the lifeline in a thriving organisation, in the day-to-day functions, in every conversation between staff, board, management, in crisis situations and in the toughest of all conversations – the ones you have with your clients who are going through difficult times.
What is positive communication?
It is a culture and collective behaviour of being always collaborative and solutions focused in our words and deed.
Where negative words like “but” is replaced with collaborative words like “and”. “I think you have made a good observation, and I would add that we can also consider ...”
Where our respond to situations is to focus on what is better and do more of that.
Where our words are aimed to bring the best out of each other and not the worse.
Where we seed positive thinking and reap the harvest of its outcomes.
Where the roots of cooperation and mutual support runs deep in the organisation. Think of the trees in the picture. There is a fascinating documentary on Netflix called Fantastic Fungi where they talk about how the underground system of roots are connecting like neurons (in brains) to share information and help each other grow.
A strong positive mindset and approach helps us to deal with situations – the ones we expect and the ones that catch us off guard.
Things happen, they always do. In this age of digital information, speed is both the boon and bane of communications.
How do we manage a crisis and crisis communications?
The 3 Ts.
Time is your friend. Manage it well and it tides you over to the next step.
Speak as soon as you are ready with the best appropriate talking points in hand. No earlier and no later. Too late and others fill in the blanks for you.
Talking points give you control. Stay focused on the points in hand and keep circling back to it as best as you can.
The 3rd T.
Transparency fosters confidence and wins you support. You have nothing to hide, you are a charity. Everything you do is in the public domain. Donations are made public; board and management are public information. Full disclosures in annual reports and governed by the Commissioner of Charities. Full disclosures when a mistake is committed or in situations beyond your control.
Know your audience and you will know who supports what you do.
Who are we communicating with at the end of the day? If the audience is the forest, then these are the trees:
- Beneficiaries who put their lives in your hands.
- Donors who entrust their money and time to you.
- Board/Management/Staff who chose to serve and work in the organisation.
- Public who keeps you on their radar.
- Partners who collaborate with you and provide services you need.
- Regulators who keep you aligned to good codes of conduct.
Having said all the above can we do it? Can you and I manage communications? The answer is yes.
I want to talk a bit about bravery in communications. I believe you are here because you have a desire for good communications. Then I say, don’t be afraid to communicate.
What is helpful in nurturing good communications?
The 6 Rs
Respect your audience, the person you are talking to. Listen more, speak less. By the way, listening is a key component of good PR and communications. The more they speak, the more you know and the better prepared you are for the next conversation.
Reach out proactively more than reactively. You get to control your narrative, the talking points, when you initiate a conversation.
Respond and get back on matters. Always get back.
The 3rd R.
Reflect on your communication outcomes. Monitor and measure how you are doing in your communications efforts and build on what is working well and stop doing what is not.
Resources are more accessible today than ever before. Social media has levelled the playing field. You can create your own content now. GenAI, ChatGPT, Midjourney, are the extra help you need.
In the recent SID Conference, one of the speakers spoke about how GenAI has the potential to power our work. Add the word “Super” in front - Super PR, Super Teacher and the list goes on.
Certainly, a note of caution here on responsible AI use. The IPRS is working with Sandpiper Communications to launch an AI Guidance for the PR Industry - set of guardrails to help practitioners and companies understand the boundaries and best practices in the midst of this fast evolving tech revolution.
The last R.
Recovery. It is possible to recover from a bad communication situation. We are more resilient and resourceful than we think or give ourselves credit for.
When we try, we give ourselves that chance to recover. A forest can recover from a fire. Plants can grow again. Given a chance, the light can break through.
Appoint the most appropriate spokesperson, deliver timely information release, apologise where needed, show the action steps for recovery and follow-up with updates and reports.
Finally, what is communications in a charity organisation? Or in an organisation for that matter?
Communications is a duty of care.
It is not a to-do list or a strategy. For me, it is a labour of love to ensure that our organisation thrive and survive. Especially in the volatile and uncertain world that we live in now. Communications is a life-skill which we must all have.
Koh Juat Muay, President IPRS