Public Relations (PR) globally has evolved to a whole new different platform, and to stay ahead of the game the PR industry in Sri Lanka needs to progress from traditional written words to content creation as masters of ‘storytellers’ as well as ‘social scientists’. The Daily FT met up with visiting Ogilvy Public Relations Global Chief Learning Officer, Daniel Ch’ng during his recent visit to Colombo where he shared insights on PR challenges, trends, evolving platforms and other key areas. Following are the excerpts of the interview:
By Charumini de Silva
Q: What is the purpose of the visit?
A: The purpose of this visit is a training session on ‘client communication’ which we have planned for couple of years. The training session is focused on how better we could communicate with our clients and the tool we are going to use here is ‘Emergenetics’. At this particular training, Ogilvy Sri Lanka people will learn about how people are going to think and behave and then communicate they way people want it to be communicated.
I think for Sri Lanka it is very different because they are still following traditional methods, but also slowly moving to video and content creation. However, in going forward it should be more about how we create stories in a better way. These guys know about it, but what I am doing at this training is to add another layer of complexity with brain science and neuroscience; thereby it will appeal better to your brain and behaviour. This is something we are trying to inculcate in them at this training session and that is something we want to improve on.
I have been to Sri Lanka many times on holiday as well as for official work and I think this my fifth visit. I find it really interesting in the country especially the food, people and the culture.
Q: How would you assess the PR industry and PR skills in Sri Lanka?
A: Well…that is a tough question for me to answer, but what I do understand is a lot of people think PR is actually just media relations and traditional media. That is the notion people have here, but that has evolved so much. Today, PR is not just media — it is a whole new different platform such as digital media and social media. I think that is one area the PR industry in Sri Lanka needs to evolve. In the past, PR was much more into written words, but today it is about content creation and that is far beyond from words, press releases, videos and photographs.
In a nutshell, I think what we pride is as ‘storytellers’. How do we take our client’s message and tell a story that relates to a target audience in a comprehensive manner. When I say client, it may not necessarily be a profit making organisation; it could be any institution or a policy message. PR practitioners are ‘social scientists’ as well. We could understand how societies are behaving. In this regard, finding that connection between what our client’s wants, craft a story which makes sense to that target audience, something they understand and appreciate needs to be communicated. Whether they agree or not is something we can do anything directly, but what we can do is to influence them in a direction we hope to because I see ourselves as social scientists.
Owing to the new platforms and being social scientists, there are a couple of big changes in going forward. Change number one is that we are going beyond written words. Going forward, we see a lot of brain science and neuroscience being involved to craft stories and differentiate ourselves. This is one area where Ogilvy PR is heavily investing on. It is important for our people to understand about how the brain focuses, because they need to understand our clients and communicate better on how people think and behave. In fact, our Chairman who is based in Washington DC is starting to focus on neuroscience and brain science. Another change is ‘earn influence’ on how would we rightly influence a policy, product or a message into the community by understanding and behaviour. This is a big difference in PR and advertising — advertising is very direct, where as PR is very indirect. At Ogilvy, we are going to go heavily on neuroscience and brain science.
Q: What are the PR challenges for organisations?
A: Without a doubt it is the budget, as everyone wants to mange it at least possible ways. However, I think the PR challenge is still understanding and knowing how to use PR properly with a message that will cut across and influence communities. Lot of CMOs, communication officers in the corporate world still see PR as a press release, something in newspapers; but it is beyond a mere written message. This is where we need to become the masters of storytelling.
Let me share an example based on a campaign we did for a client in Africa. They wanted to build a drinking water pipeline for a rural village in Africa. In this village, people walk around 40 kilometres to fetch water on a daily basis. Our job was to promote this message best and create awareness. We the ‘social scientist’ picked the Paris Marathon which is the same distance that these villagers walk everyday to get water. We invited one lady from the village to join the marathon, but she carried a big bucket of water on her head with two sign boards in front saying ‘this is the distance we walk everyday to get water and we need your support’. Of course, the Paris marathon organisers were not very happy with it as we hijacked their event, but that message got across very clearly through traditional, digital, and social media.
Likewise, we need to find creative ways to tell stories in an influential manner. In the past, it was more like we had to pitch our story to the media, but today we just tell our story; you can find your own story because it is going to be newsworthy. That’s a big change that we want to do.
Q: What are the future trends relating to PR?
A: To be more of social scientists and storytelling is a big trend too. When you say stories, it means a story that connects with your target audience. Out job actually us to help solve problems. When a client engages or hires us, it means that they need to resolve their problems in a way of promoting an idea or create awareness. A big trend you see is PR trying to emulate big consulting firms. One part is neuroscience and the other is about listening better and conveying our point of view better.
The change that will take place going forward would be the change of platform. A lot of us are going to non-traditional platforms just like newspapers. Whether you like it or not creative skills are very important, especially in terms of creating things more fun, exciting and different. Creative thinking, critical thinking, problem solving skills are something we would like to see in our people for help them to status up for the future. I cannot predict what the real future beholds, but looking at the current trends it is going to be a blurring of lines within advertising, PR and other sectors.
From a client’s point of view one day there will be no PR, it will just be communication. Those sectoral lines would be blurred especially from the client’s side. From a PR point of view, we need to maintain that discipline to get into that mentality. Although lines would be blurred, communication is something that people need constantly. A lot of people try to do business type of communication, whereas at Ogilvy, ours is pretty much creative oriented problem solving exercise — and that’s how we differentiate ourselves from the big consulting firms. Again, the people they hire and people we hire are totally different.
Q: What is the PR industry doing to build competence, skills set, creativity?
A: My job as the Global Chief Learning Officer is to train and develop the skills of our people to create what our clients are asking for. Part of my training here in Sri Lanka is to give our people a better knowledge of understanding client’s needs and challenges. We do ‘blended learning’ which is a combination of classroom and online learning. But to me the best learning is still on the hands-on learning, where they are actually out on the field.
We are training our people to become more like coaches, thereby they teach people on the job. So for me, learning in those three types on blended learning is very important. The key areas we focus on training are listening and asserting, creativity and critical thinking as well as neuroscience and brain science to be a better consultant. These are some of the broad areas I am going to focus on at Ogilvy PR globally.
The new strategy would be online. Many people try to do things online, but it doesn’t work like that. You got to be self initiative to learn online. The new strategy would be coaching as many of our leaders and mangers don’t have time to coach our people. Therefore, we want to get our hands on learning much more effective. In terms of effectiveness of these learning, online is 10%, classroom around 30% and the balance is all about on the job experience. That is going to be part of their Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) as a leader and how you are going to deliver that.
At Ogilvy, we don’t produce staff, but people and that’s why we invest a lot in training and development. Not many companies have a training leader. They talk about it, but they don’t invest on it. I am very proud that at Ogilvy we walk the talk. Training and development is very important as the industry keeps on evolving and that is the difference between a great PR company and not so good PR company. Good or bad, we are considered as the ‘University of Communication’ where people want to join Ogilvy and get two years experience. This is mainly because Ogilvy always stresses the importance of developing and growing on people. It is a culture and we keep on doing that.
At present, many of the clients are now shifting towards digital ramp of advertising solutions. I think companies that are still banking on traditional advertising; are bound to lose a lot of income. Clients are being smart and they are starting to use cost effective types of approach to advertise. To give a ratio, if you spend $ 1 million, PR may cost only $100,000. You never get as same as traditional advertising. I don’t think that advertising is ever going to die, but there will be a big shift in how people start asking different discipline.
Q: What are your predictions on future of PR and how you see social media changing the industry?
A: I think for us it is just a different platform. To us, what is more important is telling the story in a different way. The only difference is the traditional or non-traditional platform. We are not afraid of what platform that comes, up as far as we are creative enough to put across our client’s story in a unique way. As PR people, we are seen very adaptable. The world is changing at a rapid pace. Facebook is ‘the’ social media platform today, but I bet you in the next five years it would be out of the league. Therefore, what is important to us as PR companies is to focus on crafting our stories and differentiate ourselves.