Quak Hiang Whai (MPA Class of 2009)
Urging Asian Governments & Businesses to Engage Media
Quak Hiang Whai, an LKY School alumnus, veteran journalist and a former news editor of the Business Times, recently published Don’t Quote Me, a book on media relations and corporate communications. In this interview he argues that companies and governments in Asia must become more media savvy.
What motivated you to write the book?
I wanted to write a book in memory of a dear friend and former deputy news editor of the Business Times, who passed away suddenly in 2008, as well as my two decades’ experience in both journalism and corporate communications. As a full time student, I had the rare opportunity to realise both objectives. The turning point came when I walked into a local bookshop and found two local media management books, both written by Westerners. There were no media management books written by local journalists or corporate communication specialists on the shelves.
Still, the main motivation is this – we are well into the 21st century, yet many governments and senior executives don’t understand the importance and necessity of media engagement. A lot of them create crises simply through sheer ignorance and mismanagement of media.
What is your key message?
Media skills are now a pre-requisite for any modern leader, whether in the government, private sector or nongovernment organisations. Don’t shun the media. Use it. You need to develop the processes, the expertise, and the networking to build key media skill sets. The media has evolved with the proliferation of new platforms and political and press freedom.
Media management is not the sole responsibility of the corporate communications division. Leaders and senior executives must engage the media if they want their policies, programmes and organisations to succeed. The difference between success and failure can be sourced to even one bad media incident.
What are the most common media-related mistakes leaders make?
The media writes the first draft of history. Images are powerful in defining history. Those who deal with the media have to understand three things. First, your agenda and the media’s objectives are quite different. What may be the most important point to you may not be the most newsworthy angle to the journalist.
Second, you do not dictate how your story is played. You are not on level playing field, especially if it is in a more adversarial media environment. You don’t get to pick the best quotes, the best picture, or the best news angle. It is the media’s prerogative.
Finally, be mindful of your behaviour at all times. Any lapse can be imprinted for posterity. Many leaders are caught off guard when they lose their cool and the images stay with us as part of history. For example, Chinese President Jiang Zemin lost his temper in front of the TV cameras when repeatedly asked the same question by a reporter. Former Hong Kong Stock Exchange Chairman Ronald Li screamed “I will sue you !’’ at a reporter on TV. On the other hand, a positive image can be very moving and travel far. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has done well with his regular appearances in disaster zones in China. Singapore Airlines Spokesman Rick Clements also won kudos when he was pictured hugging a victim’s family member after an SIA plane crash.
How has the Internet changed communications strategies?
The speed and range of delivery have increased. We are operating on a global basis and dealing with Internet platforms, social networking sites, smart phones, bloggers, live satellite TV, and youtube on real time. When alleged terrorist Mas Selamat Kastari was recaptured in Malaysia, I first read the news on facebook before any of the mainstream newspapers or TV in Singapore reported it. Many companies and public organizations are only beginning to acknowledge the importance of such new media. While the speed and range of delivery have changed, the basic sound principles behind a good communications strategy have not: you listen, you prepare, you practise and you engage your stakeholders and the media.
What were the highlights of your studies at the LKY School?
I enjoyed the intellectual discourse coming from people of different countries, cultures and professional backgrounds. But formal lessons aside, the highlights were the new friends I have made– both the staff, faculty and the students. We had parties. We played soccer. We ate, sang, and danced. As president of the MPA class during the second term, I worked closely with my classmates and other courses such as the MPP and MPM.
What did you gain from the experience?
Always have an adaptive multidimensional approach towards problem solving. Look at the different stakeholders and their different interests and how you can adapt your situation to the different challenges. Never assume. Listen and engage. Network and persuade. And take your different stakeholders on board with you if you can. Work on the informal and trust elements first in any management issues. I also learned a more structured approach towards policy analysis and evaluation and problem solving.
Quak has worked in print and television media with news conglomerate Singapore Press Holdings, spending six years heading the Hong Kong bureau for Business Times covering the Greater China region. He left journalism after 17 years to join Singapore’s United Overseas Bank Group as head of group communications and investor relations divisions. A graduate from the National University of Singapore with a Bachelor of Business Administration, he attended the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in 2008/09 where he received his Master in Public Administration and was placed on the Dean’s List. He is currently a media trainer and a director in a multimedia and publishing group.