Archive for the 'reputation management' Category

Why Asia’s Corporations Resist Corporate Communication and Reputation Management – Michael Netzley’s Five-point Model

My colleague Michael Netzley of the Singapore Management University posted a fascinating reflection on why Asian corporates are reluctant to actively and openly engage with their stakeholders and constituents.  Netzley has distilled his thinking–which he co-credits his students–into a five-point model: (1) strategic pragmatism; (2) standard practice; (3) relative trust in higher-ups; (4) context of tradition; and (5) market stage. No doubt, the intertwined issues are evaluated through western lens and terms, and empirical research beyond anecdotes are warranted, but I think there is some validity in this model and it’s really worth some thought.

Mattel — A PR Fiasco?

Like many around the world, I grew up being familiar with Mattel toys. It’s a brand that communicates oodles of fun, loads of creativity, and implicit in all these, are that its products are safe even for young children. The nightmare the company has faced with product recalls and a string of apologies has been well-documented.

How did Mattel fare? In China, certainly the state-owned media seem to have injected their own take on the issue. Michael Netzley of Singapore Management University shared his view that Mattel may have lost some control of its message in that market.

That aside, my own view is that on Mattel’s own communication platform–it’s corporate website–it has done a rather laudable job. On the front page is a link to a message from Bob Eckert, its Chairman and CEO, communicating his empathy and commitment to earn back its customers’ trust. More importantly, there is a prominently displayed link to a website–updated in more than 15 languages–explaining what Mattel is doing to assure the safety of its products, an FAQ, a link to media statements, and a videocast from Eckert apologizing for the situation and reiterating his personal commitment to product safety and getting customers to trust Mattel again. A link to Mattel’s customer service portal brings the public to media and consumer relations contacts in key markets around the world.

How did you think Mattel handled the situation in terms of issues and crisis management? And as far as Mattel’s own website is concerned, how do you think it fared in terms of getting the message out and being transparent?

Update on local universities’ admissions statistics

In a rather stunning clarification, the Straits Times reported that the figures given in Parliament by its Minister of State was incorrect after all. A total of 4,218 places were offered to foreign students this year by the three universities here, instead of 987. This works out to 18 per cent of the 22,933 foreigners who had applied.

Notwithstanding, the point remains that the public would be better able to appreciate the numbers if they were also told of the Singaporean and international students who applied, how many did not meet the requisite entrance criteria in the first place. Well, I guess sometimes it’s not that the news makers do not want to reveal the full set of information, but that the right questions need to be asked.

Looking beneath the statistics – Local students given priority at state universities

Singapore’s news daily, The Straits Times, reported on July 17 that local students are “still given priority” for university. It provided the following statistics:

-Of the 28,000 local students who applied for a place last year in the three local universities, about 14,000 or 49 per cent were successful.

-But of the 23,000 foreign students who made an application, only 987 or about 4 per cent were offered places.

Ostensibly, it would seem that local students were indeed given priority (not that this is necessarily a good thing).

But there are some other factors that could account for this statistics. For example, could it be that of the 28,000 local students who applied, a significantly high percentage satisfactorily met entrance requirements, whereas of the international students who applied, there was a high percentage that failed to meet the requisite criteria. Thus, it is possible that it was not that NUS had accorded priority to local students out of some national policy, but that because of the relatively smaller proportion of international students meeting the entrance criteria, the statistics was in fact by default.

The public would be able to better appreciate the numbers if they were also informed how many of the local and international students who applied did not meet the entrance requirements to begin with.

What relevance does this hold for a blog focusing on public relations and reputation management? Well, first, providing a fuller, more transparent explanation of statistics is important from a credibility standpoint. One should not assume that the public will take flattering statistics at face value.

Secondly, the seemingly stellar reputation of Singapore’s state universities is oft-repeated enough in the local media that perhaps most Singaporeans take it as inviolate. It hence attracts students with high academic achievements. However, in the region and most certainly around the world, the local state universities may not enjoy as high a standing as there are several universities even in Asia that command a higher brand equity that Singaporeans are simply not aware of. Hence, the local state universities would not be the top Asian university that the best international students would apply to.

Rebranding vocational education in Singapore: ITE’s experience

In my previous post, I shared Banyan Tree Executive Chairman Ho Kwon Ping’s take on branding.    I thought I would briefly encapsulate the Institute of Education (ITE)‘s ongoing endeavor to shed old perceptions, rebranding itself as a viable and vibrant education provider to school leavers in Singapore, as shared at the PR Academy‘s 6th Annual Conference.

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Singaporeans would know that ITE inherited its antecedent Vocational and Industrial Training Board (VITB) legacy, and the attendant image that it was the place of last resort for students who could not make it in the mainstream school system.  In fact, for many years, ITE was colloquially termed “It’s The End.”  Today, partly as a result of an aggressive, sustained rebranding campaign (and in part favorable economic conditions), much of the stigma has been reduced.  How did ITE do it?  Dr. Benjamin Tan, its Deputy CEO shared that the institution embarked on a three-pronged strategy after a comprehensive benchmark perception study to gauge public attitudes as well as information gaps:

(1) Corporate rebranding: It initiated public campaigns designed to create public empathy and credibility of the ITE brand, in tandem with an internal transformation of the organization.  Three campaigns were launched between 1998-2003.

(2) Media strategy: Build good relations with the media and actively provides them with timely and newsworthy stories.  Unafraid to use vernacular media to reach parents.

(3) Direct engagement with key stakeholders, with activities tailored for specific groups of prospective students, educators, and parents as well as the general public.

According to Dr. Tan, an independent Triennial Perception Studies suggested that ITE’s brand equity had risen by 76%.  Whatever that means, anecdotally, there is a perceptible change in social attitudes toward ITE and its students as well as graduates.  This perhaps illustrates the effectiveness of a research-based, empirically-grounded, and systematically thought-out rebranding strategy.

Public Relations Academy Conference – “Markets and Brands: Positioning for the 21st Century”

I attended the PR Academy‘s 6th Annual Conference a couple of weeks ago.  One of the most provocative speeches was none other than its keynote delivered by Ho Kwon Ping, Executive Chairman of Banyan Tree Holdings, known most for its ultra-luxe chain of eco-friendly resorts.

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Ho described himself as both “an ardent advocate and confirmed cynic” of branding.  Lamenting how in the zeitgeist of branding, a buzzword which seems to drip uncontrollably out of the lips of marketers and ad executives, “the packaging has come to replace the product.”

Branding, according to Ho, is the distillation of all the attributes of a company into a powerful entity.  This is a proprietary advantage of a company, unlike a competitive advantage which can be seized by competitors. 

Ho further asserted that credibility is the most important, but yet sorely lack attribute to branding.  The imputation, then, is perhaps that if a company put its money where its mouth is, living up to its values and credo above marketese, the story will tell itself.  Indeed, Ho claimed that at Banyan Tree, he measured the size of its ad budget vis-a-vis revenue growth to gauge the success of the brand.  To this end, Banyan Tree has a relatively modest ad budget, but leverages heavily on third-party endorsement, which to Ho, is far more credible.

That is all well and good, and even branding gurus would not dispute that a strong brand cannot be built on lip service.  However, in an increasingly competitive market, I wonder if it’s enough just to keep on keeping on, hoping that the story would somehow get out. 

Take Singapore for example.  Southeast Asia as a region in the eighties and nineties was far different from what it today has become.  Merely a decade ago, Singapore was able to shine and attract investors simply by offering a predictable environment to do business, an efficient work force, and reliable infrastructure.  Today, the gaps between Singapore and its neighbors have narrowed, and will continue to narrow.  Its closest neighbor, Malaysia, for example, is embarking on a multi-pronged effort to market itself to the world.  As part of an effort to respond to the challenge, the Singapore government has engaged Interpublic’s FutureBrand to help it develop an umbrella brand position.  Putting the hands to the till is only half the equation.  In this day and age, one needs to get the story out as well.

Incidentally, Ho is an interesting man, with a colorful history.  Born into a wealthy family that ran a diversified commodities, trading, and construction conglomerate, Ho was a student activitist in his university days.  He later worked as a correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review, and was briefly jailed under Singapore’s Internet Security Act for some of his articles.  Today, however, he quite the country’s darling, holding the position of Chairman of the Singapore Management University‘s Board of Trustees.  Check out this bio on BusinessWeek and a corporatized version on SMU’s website.

Thailand receives reputation boost on health front

Clinton and Thai Health Minister (picture credit: Bangkok Post)I know that my past two posts on Thailand expressed serious concerns regarding the country’s reputation both in the region and around the world.  Its desultory progress toward restoring democracy and the retrogressive tactic to ban YouTube did it no favor.  However, there is one area where I think the country is bold and progressive, and that is its decision to break the patents of some prohibitively expensive HIV medications so that its HIV-positive citizens can have affordable access to medications that could save their lives.  Earlier this year, Thailand issued licenses for affordable generic versions of Abbott’s Kaletra for HIV (while Brazildid likewise with Merck’s Efavirenz).

In response, the U.S. pharmaceutical industry galvanized against Thailand, engaging lobbyist groups such as USA for Innovation to put pressure on the American government to take punitive measures against Bangkok.  In late-March,  the U.S. Office of Trade Representative in Washington downgraded the country to the Priority Watch List for its IP trangressions, according to Bangkok’s The Nation.

Thailand’s case received a significant boost yesterday when former U.S. President Bill Clinton standing side-by-side Thailand’s Public Health Minister Mongkol Na Songkhla, gave his backing to both countries’ decision to break the patents.  Unequivocal, Clinton averred, “I strongly support the position of the governments of Thailand and Brazil and their decision after futile negotiations to break these patents.”  See a Bangkok Post report here and a Reuters story here.

Thailand right now suffers a credibility issue.  In areas where the government is doing the right and just things, I think this is just what it needs to do in terms of public relations to get the message out, i.e. locate and nurture well-respected leaders to lend their weight to the given cause or issue.

Another point here…yes, the pharmaceutical giants may have the budget to retain public relations titans and sophisticated lobbying interests to push their causes, but on the ground, there is a grassroots movement to protest what is seen as naked avarice on the part of some of these drug companies.  In April, a group of students from Harvard University staged a protest outside Abbott’s facility in Wocester against its decision not to allow Thailand to produce generics of Kaletra and its pulling out of other vital AIDS medications from the Thai market.  After speeches were made, the students staged a “die-in,” where the “denied prescription” was carried past the protestors, who then fell to the groundin mock death.  Similar protests took place in Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C., Austin, and other key American cities.  Read an article from The Harvard Crimson here.

Oh, and on the YouTube ban, well, here’s the latest…Google has blinked, apparently.  The Bangkok Post has reported that the company has written to Thailand’s information minister pledging to remove all “anti-monarchy” video clips from its video-sharing subsidiary.  Read the Bangkok Post story here.


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