Singapore’s PR Academy

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on May 31, 2007

Recruiting bright people is faster than growing them…

With a name like PR Academy, the natural assumption is that this organization is a private-sector training institute, or perhaps a PR consultancy. It is a training institute and it is a consultancy. But it is not a private-sector organization. Instead, it’s an agency of the Ministry of Information, Communications, and the Arts in Singapore whose mission is “to raise the professionalism of Singapore government communicators.”

Like most industry-leading private-sector organizations, the Singapore government understands the value of public relations in building its brand and generating goodwill among target markets. The PR Academy has trained more than 5,000 government officials through workshops, conferences, and special programs since it was established in 2001.

According to managing director Sulosana Karthigasu, PR Academy provides training courses in all areas of strategic communications, including media skills, speechwriting, presentations skills, public consultation, and facilitation. It also develops customized courses tailored to the requirements of specific government units. The organization – and the Singapore government it seems – has a modern, holistic perspective of the role of public relations.

I had the chance to observe the PR Academy up close last week as one of the speakers for its annual conference. This year’s theme was “Markets and Brands: Positioning for the 21st Century.” The conference was the sixth the PR Academy has conducted, but the first time this year it took place over two full days. Speakers from Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand as well as Singapore demonstrated PR Academy’s concern with regional issues and global best practice.

Among the speakers were Banyan Tree Group executive chairman Ho Kwon Ping, AirAsia founder Tony Fernandes, MobyElite CEO Callum Laing, Vocanic CEO Ian McKee, and University of Queensland professor Josephine Previte. Singapore’s minister for education, Tharman Shanmugaratnam delivered the opening keynote, observing that branding has become much more complex because of “the reality of a world of remarkable change and fluidity.

“Each day brings a new product, a new idea or a new fad,” he observed. “The marketplace is crowded – many new players are jostling to capture mindshare or eyeballs. In every sector and niche.” Despite this challenge, Shanmugaratnam told conference delegates “We have to find our own buzz as a global city – our own distinctive appeal – (and) deliver consistently.”

If that objective is accomplished, Shanmugaratnam believes that Singapore can become a true global city in the next 15 years. But if that promise is to be realized, the minister of education said this “will only be so if we are also willing to keep looking at ourselves critically, to constantly learn from others around the world, and keep improving.”

That candor I found refreshing as well as constructive. First, Shanmugaratnam acknowledged that for Singapore to achieve its potential, it must evaluate its progress against that of the world’s other great cities. In effect, progress is relevant in today’s world when it is benchmarked against the very best the world knows, and not merely compared internally from one year to the next. How much better conditions are internally doesn’t mean as much as how conditions internally compare to the world’s top cities.

Second, Shanmugaratnam emphasized the importance of not just benchmarking great places, cultures, and societies, but learning from them. He urged support for Singaporeans who “venture out and break new ground. And we must strengthen a culture of excellence for all.” That’s an interesting proposition: that the purpose of excellence is for others, and not just an end in itself.

The pursuit of excellence in place branding is precisely for that purpose: for all. While Singapore, like any place, has issues to address, this growing city-state has in many respects opened its arms to the world. In fact, it seeks to become a magnet for bright minds from around the world, actively recruiting talented professionals and even educating them. Unlike many places, getting a student or work visa takes as little as a week according to people I spoke with.

Recruiting bright people is the best way to learn from them, and is faster and more economical than going to the bright people, even if that were possible. Ultimately, who benefits? Singaporeans, of course. As knowledge is transferred, jobs are created, and the economy strengthened through the contribution these people make. Being a great world city is, after all, about being a great place for people. All people.

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