Reflections with Marcus Loh

By Wong Yi Hao and Gracia Chua

Marcus is the Senior Director, Regional Clients at WE Communications, one of the world’s largest independent integrated communication firms. His practice offers counsel to clients in Asia Pacific in the areas of reputation analytics, corporate reputation, and brand purpose. He volunteers with non-profits like the Institute of Public Relations of Singapore (IPRS) where he was elected as its President last year. As a Fellow at the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre’s Company of Good initiative, he encourages corporate leaders to give back to their community in ways that are strategic, sustainable, and impactful.

I was lucky to find my interest in the construction and communication of cultural narratives from young. I still remember feeling fascinated by the mythologies from both East and West, voraciously consuming books, remodelling LEGO figurines, and watching television programs on literary classics like Journey to the West and later, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms when I was still in primary school. My schoolteachers were some of the best storytellers I have known. They did such a phenomenal job that despite coming from a family that did not speak Mandarin at home, I had relished these subjects to the point of foolhardily volunteering for storytelling competitions, joining the school’s drama and debating society, and staging a play on William Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Julius Caesar at a school assembly!

I am glad to have been exposed to a myriad of influences that have shaped my view of of these civilisations at such an impressionable stage of my life. From the strategic rivalry between the United States and China, to reimagining capitalism for the 21st century, I have drawn inspiration from some of these ‘primordial’ instincts when making sense of the broader societal developments that are impacting the business of our clients and their stakeholders today.    

On capitalism for instance, 77% of leaders think brands have a moral obligation to engage with a societal issue when it impacts their business, according to a study by WE Communications and Quartz Insights. Yet doing well and being good has long been perceived to be a tough path to navigate. Not the least of which stems from the misguided ideology that the sole social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.  

On the contrary, recent studies show the dividends from corporations doing good are multi-fold. Customers with a favourable impression of a company’s sense of social responsibility are three times more likely to be loyal compared with those with less favourable perceptions about a company’s philanthropic efforts, according to the Council on Foundations and Walker Information. Similarly, employees with a favourable impression of their company’s social ideals and actions are five times more likely to remain with their employer, according to Deloitte. The same firm in 2019 also found that millennials will patronise and support companies that align with their values and may end a relationship when they disagree with a company’s business practices or values.

Businesses can pursue both economic and social value creation concurrently. If leaders are to reimagine the role of capitalism for the 21st century, then public relations practitioners may serve as strategic partners in reframing this narrative on their behalf: that for businesses to be here for the long-term interest of its shareholders, they need to also be here for the long-term good of its stakeholders.

This new narrative needs to be conveyed in a way that is both culturally relevant and sensitive.

The Institute of Public Relations of Singapore is the only accreditation body for the PR-communication sector for practitioners based in our country. Of the many roles that we play as an industry body, IPRS has conceptualised initiatives to encourage current and new generations of communication practitioners to find meaning and relevance in the profession as we mark our 50th Jubilee in 2020. The office of the IPRS President, along with all other Council seats, are elected roles. The Council has a diverse grouping today with leaders represented by various segments of the PR and communications profession, from corporate communication heads, to academics and agency chiefs.

Against the backdrop of a global pandemic, I think we have made commendable strides in our term of office so far: We have grown our base of individual members, welcomed some of Singapore’s most prominent organisations as corporate members, engaged our community via virtual townhalls and online networking sessions, and pioneered other creative avenues to conduct skills upgrading courses for our members amid the mandatory requirements of safe distancing.

I think there has been a virtuous convergence of interests as an elected office holder at IPRS, an industry practitioner, and as someone who is passionate about encouraging the growth of Singapore’s civil society and outreach to the broader community.

For instance, as an industry practitioner, my teams and I work with clients in many markets in Asia to solve communication challenges affecting their corporate reputation and brand purpose. Practitioners can attest to the difference that a high performing individual can have bring to a consulting team. Yet such a calibre of talent emerging directly from our educational institutions remains rare, despite Singapore being home to some of the best universities in the world. That is because a one-size fits all, 4-year, full-time college education model as we have in Singapore may not necessarily work for our sector, in my opinion.

I look forward to the day where universities and industry work hand-in-hand to not just train students, but also guarantee that these students —  that we have jointly-trained — earn job placements with our firms and embark on a long-term career in our industry. That is not happening today because of a wide chasm between universities and companies. But as officeholders of an industry body, my fellow Council members and I can do something about this gap, to bring these entities closer together.

In August this year, we inked a Memorandum of Understanding with Advisory Singapore, expressing both parties’ intent to collaborate as partners to support youth development in Singapore and encouraging more students to pursue careers in the public relations industry. IPRS has also extended a complimentary one-year Affiliate Membership to all recent graduates in 2020 from all IPRS-Student Chapter institutions to give students the same access to networking opportunities and courses as our professional IPRS members. We want these chapters, represented in virtually all tertiary institutions here, to serve as talent pipelines for an industry where high-calibre individuals with the right values and attitudes are highly prized, regardless of their background.

Life outside of work and volunteering with the community revolves mainly around books — the windows to many worlds, ranging from philosophy and history to capitalism and data analytics. While I do get to all of them eventually, I am plagued by the habit of stocking my shelves with more books than I can presently manage!

Any practitioner that indulges in ‘spin’ cannot really succeed in this industry in the long haul because they — and the organisations they represent — would not be trusted by the public. 

There is, however, another perspective in public relations that I subscribe to — it is about what you do, rather than what you say. “PR is about how organizations behave, not what they say”, said the late Harold Burson, one of the founding fathers of the craft.

In my nearly 20-year career in this field, I have come to appreciate how an organisation’s reputation needs to emanate from its actions, and not simply the eloquent articulation of why it exists. The whole idea of public relations boils down to advancing mutually beneficial relationships with one’s key institutions and the people who are affected by them. And nothing threatens a relationship more than making lofty promises without fulfilling them through action.

The way in which the Government has responded has been quite innovative and credible, considering how we were operating under the cloud of conflicting advice from communities of experts around the world.

To the Government’s credit, you see public agencies using WhatsApp and social media of not just official government channels but the channels of the respective political and grassroots leaders to marshal networks, engage with the grassroots, and partner with civil society to convey public service messages in clear and empathic ways.

I am also heartened to see how businesses have stepped up. I wrote an opinion piece for The Straits Times before the first Budget was announced, titled “Lessons from the coronavirus outbreak for Budget 2020”. In that op-ed, I cited the example of NTUC FairPrice stepping forward to be a societal stabilizer when there was panic buying when there was a change from DORSCON Yellow to DORSCON Orange. Fairprice’s CEO, Seah Kian Peng was leading from the front, calming people, and mobilising teams from across the NTUC network and within FairPrice to ensure that Singaporeans felt assured and cared for. Clear and empathetic communication from business leaders like Kian Peng continue to be decisive factors in Singapore’s fight against COVID-19.

I also recalled (in the op-ed) that in addition to FairPrice, there were more than 16 organisations that stepped forward to pool together volunteers, resources and supplies before the Government even asked for them. There was such an overwhelming response over such a short span of time that this became a private-sector, people’s sector effort that complemented broader initiatives from the Government. There were funds set up to help people in need. Temporary relief funds, emergency funds, and the like. There were platforms with a list of services for people who needed help.

Our fight against Covid-19 remains a concerted effort to mobilise what Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing calls the “Singapore Core”, comprising organisations and employees (both local and foreign) to help fellow Singaporeans weather this storm of a generation.

The Company of Good is an initiative by the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) together with the Singapore Business Federation’s foundation arm, with support from the Ministry of Community, Culture and Youth (MCCY). These three institutions came together to call on corporate leaders to make Singapore a better place by embracing a largeness of spirit.

I was fortunate to represent the Institute of Public Relations of Singapore and my former company Tableau Software, in the third run of Company of Good. The 6-month program equipped us with the knowledge of 1) helping companies understand their sense of corporate purpose, 2) gearing up companies to do good from the core competencies of their business, 3) measuring the impact of their actions and 4) working together to do even better.

I think that this is an exciting time to be in PR. Firstly, I am thrilled at the prospect of fusing so much of what we see in machine learning, natural language processing, and predictive analytics into making the PR function more accountable to organisations it serves.

Indeed, regulatory, market and consumer scrutiny are at an all-time high and the power of digital communications can build or ruin reputation within seconds. Fortunately, we have also made advances in the area of reputation analytics which allow practitioners to integrate news, industry trends, social media chatter, financial information, and tailored algorithms to provide a consolidated, quantitative view of the market, opinion leaders and consumer conversations around the issues that matter to our clients.

By embracing reputation analytics, PR leaders can become better partners to their business decision makers and policy makers, by sounding them out on emerging socio-political patterns in real time, and in some cases even predict the outcomes and impacts of one’s corporate actions.

Secondly, organisations today are navigating what Rebecca Wilson, Executive Vice President of Singapore & Australia at WE Communications, calls a ‘Purpose Tightrope’. She explains in an opinion piece for PRWeek that in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, corporate decision-making was largely fuelled by adrenaline, with little precedence to guide the way. Rebecca shared that with this intuitive leadership style came a great divide in how leaders navigated those first months, giving rise to a tension point – or a ‘tightrope’ – between financial sustainability and social impact.

Through multiple case studies, Rebecca demonstrated how companies who navigated this balance well, have looked to their sense of corporate purpose as “a critical filter for decision making, emerging from the pandemic stronger than before”.

She recounted the example of how Lenovo, the world’s leading PC maker and a WE client, had walked this tightrope with aplomb, for the benefit of its stakeholders and its corporate reputation: Over 300 million students in India and many millions more in Asia Pacific were cut off from attending school when the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak led to the lockdown of cities across the region. To bridge the physical distance between students and their teachers, Lenovo leaned into its master narrative of providing “Smarter Technology for all” to create a “Smarter Place to Learn”. In India, it partnered with a local NGO to use technology to connect teacher volunteers with students on a platform that intelligently matches their preferred styles of learning. In just 2 months, more than 13 million people were engaged in this activation, sparking further education campaigns in Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, and Thailand.

Today, leaders are presented with the chance to re-imagine the way business works in society, as the purpose tightrope becomes a lived reality. Such a shift towards a purpose-driven approach however requires businesses to have a value-creation model that is based on mutual reciprocity and measured on performance beyond financial capital alone. In other words, businesses need to rethink their performance metrics, management practices, and modes of profit construction if they are to restore their positive role in society and rebuild confidence and trust among their stakeholders.

By partnering with leaders to navigate a path to purpose, PR practitioners can help businesses commit themselves to becoming a force for good in their industries, behave this way toward their stakeholders, and ultimately embody the narrative they want to be remembered for.

In Singapore, we are fortunate that successive generations enjoy greater opportunities than the generations before them. My parents, in their 60’s now, were businesspeople when they were my age. They had to strike out on their own to create their own opportunities here. People in my generation were lucky to develop their professions through Singapore’s relatively porous system of meritocracy. Today, our youths can harness their talent in a diversity of fields and professions from Singapore and seize opportunities that have been availed to them worldwide. As a PR leader for example, one can manage a team with members who are based in 14 markets, just by having a physical presence in Singapore.

Around half of the top 100 global companies have chosen to set up their regional headquarters in Singapore. Singapore is the top foreign investment destination for Chinese tech firms Alibaba, Lenovo, Tencent and Pin Duo Duo. Similarly, Google, Amazon, and Facebook all have well-established regional operations here. Around 15% of more than 4,000 tech start-ups in Singapore are international rising stars. And more than half of the 11 unicorns from Southeast Asia are either based or have expanded their operations to Singapore. Moreover, our Little Red Dot has implemented over 20 bilateral and regional Free Trade Agreements (FTAs), recently concluding two mega-FTAs including the European Union-Singapore Free Trade Agreement and the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership. These multilateral deals have high standards for promoting digital trade and the platform economy. They effectively open all the world’s major markets to Singapore-based enterprises, which is more compelling as the US-China trade war shows no sign of abating. To reap the fruits of these FTAs, regional value chains can be rerouted to Singapore, where there are robust supplier networks in our SMEs and a critical mass of strategic partners and service providers.

All these connections simply mean that for our youths, the world is your stage. Singapore can be your launchpad into the world markets provided we remain an open economy, prepare our workforce and local enterprises to compete globally, and welcome foreigners as members of our Singapore Core. On that note, I think our youths need to feel confident enough to stand up to the worrying rise of populist tropes that alienate work-pass holders who have joined the companies based here, and have become a member of our team. All this talk about Singaporeans versus others is not at all sensible (and even potentially inflammatory) at a time when work can be performed from anywhere, because employers can hire from everywhere.

Therefore, when you think about charting your own careers, think about potentially making  a contribution to an organisation that is not just serving Singapore’s market of 6-million, but the 600+ million in ASEAN and the 5 billion+ in Asia. At the same time, I think it is important that our youths do not take for granted Singapore’s identity as a global, multi-cultural city-state. Singapore may have a rich social fabric, but it is also a fragile tapestry of many delicate threads.

Finally, I hope that our youths also take to heart the price that has already been paid by Singaporeans who have come before us, to secure our place in the world today.

When we got booted out of Malaysia in 1965 with no natural resources and no domestic market, we were also practically defenceless when the Cold War was in fact a Hot War taking place just two hours away (by plane) up north in Vietnam. It was no surprise therefore, that just before Singapore achieved independence 55 years ago, somebody said it would be a political, economic, and geographic absurdity to have an independent Singapore. That person was none other than Singapore’s founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew. This sense of realism – and some say paranoia – has come to characterise Singaporeans and our founding leaders who had their backs to the wall and made sacrifices so that generations after them could enjoy a better life.

Like those Singaporeans who have stubbornly sought to disprove Lee Kuan Yew’s earlier conviction, let us also commit ourselves to securing Singapore’s relevance in the world by living out these narratives of sacrifice, fortitude, and hope for the benefit of many generations to come.