Where would we be placed?

I suppose one should congratulate The Hoffman Agency for opening shop in Indonesia.

They have a curious way of evaluating how they differentiate themselves in this market though, best exemplified by this chart of theirs:

In their reckoning, until they came around clients in Indonesia had to choose between bureaucratic, international-standard agencies or high touch (whatever that means) local-standard agencies.

Unspun supposes that he should take offence because Maverick is not included in their analysis.

But then again, if we are included the top right quadrant in the chart wouldn’t be exclusively occupied by Hoffman then, would it?

Adding a role at The Palm Scribe

Recently I added another role to my LinkedIn account and have since been getting lots of well wishes but also a number of concerned questions on whether I had stopped working at Maverick to become advisor at The Palm Scribe.

So here’s a note of explanation to the concerned and the curious.

Palm Scribe Logo

The first thing to point out is that the new title does not change anything at Maverick.

I continue to work there but because I’ve been fortunate to have found a very capable team who are able to take over much of what I do, I have decided to take Fridays off to reflect and have some me time; as well as to take on more of a mentor and advisory rather than operational role.

At the end of the day, however, this is a people and relationship business and if the clients need me I’m always there for them.

In the meantime, however, I’ve taken on the role as advisor in a platform run under the auspices of Maverick, The Palm Scribe.

What is The Palm Scribe?

In short The Palm Scribe is a platform that supports the development of the Indonesian palm oil industry through constructive journalism.

Like all elevator pitches, that description is meant to pique rather than provide a comprehensive explanation.

So if you’re piqued here’s the reasoning behind The Palm Scribe.

To start with, consider the palm oil industry.

It is complex and controversial because it is the frontline of many opposing issues: Sustainability vs environmental destruction, conversation vs deforestation, development vs conservation, East versus West, developed vs developing countries, palm oil vs soy, people vs big business, NGOs vs planters…

Strong opinions are expressed on all sides but the playing field is a bit uneven as its tilted in favor of the Western/Green advocates. There are several reasons why this is so.

  1. The Western players are more sophisticated in lobbying and communication techniques. They take their communications seriously and are more able to put their side of the story across. Their Asian/African counterparts do not take communications seriously and are usually outflanked.
  2. NGOs are social media savvy. They are hungrier because they have to earn their funding and as a result they are more innovative and creative in using paid, earned, shared and owned media to make themselves known. Many of them also realize that to persuade is to appeal to the emotions first and foremost an they succeed admirably.
  3. The mainstream media is devastated by falling readership and revenue. As a result they have few journalists and resources left to raise the right questions and issues and to ask the right questions of and hold accountable the policymakers, players and NGOs. Reactive journalism, click baiting stories and cut and paste reporting happens more often than we would want them to be.
  4. Most journalists think that palm oil players are slimeballs because they often do not act like they are open, accessible or accountable. Combined with #3, they are disposed to carry any attacks on the palm oil players prominently and tag on their responses (if they get around to issuing one at all in a timely manner) later in the story. By then the damage is done.
  5. The palm oil players themselves are bad communicators. Many of them are owned and run by business people more accustomed to deal making in backrooms than realizing that public opinion can affect their businesses. Others are run by families where bloodlines rather than competencies determine who is the decision maker. The result is that there are almost no oil palm player that can communicate in a persuasive, authentic and credible manner.
  6. Ineffective committees and trade associations. Apart from Malaysia that has quite an active lobbying and communications effort, their Indonesian counterparts are more mired in bureaucracy and pleasing all stakeholders rather than projecting a favorable image for the industry.
  7. Most importantly, however, because of all the elements mentioned above the public discourse on palm oil has gone askew. There is a world shortage of food and in edible oil that will be more acute with time. Of all the oil crops, palm oil is the most efficient oil to help address this shortage. As such you would think that the discourse on palm oil should be on how to make the industry strong, viable and sustainable. Unfortunately, however, most of the conversation and discourse on palm oil is about violations to conservation and sustainability standards (some arbitrarily advanced by this body or that) and the wrongdoings of the players. Something needs to be done about this if palm oil is indeed the crop for the future.

Having helped some palm oil companies manage attacks agains them as well as helping to tell their side of the story when it coms to sustainability issues, one of the things I realized is that many of the palm players are so traumatized by what they perceive is an antagonistic media/NGO environment that they do not know what to do. So many of them opt to keep their heads below the parapet instead. This does not serve them well because every negative story or article gets accumulated in Google and when investors and others want to find out about you, guess where they go to first?

Out of all this the idea of The Palm Scribe was born. Instead of fault-finding journalism we would adopt the principles of Constructive Journalism (a concept I personally poo pooed until I started to research more about it).

We would cover the palm oil industry, raise the issues that ned to be raised, ask the right questions. We would focus on the solutions the companies adopt or put in place in response to allegations of wrong doing. And we would also provide them a “non-editorial” space on our website to showcase their CSR, sustainability and community engagement efforts as well as space of their announcements and press releases.

In going into this we were aware that the success of such a platform rests on its credibility, judged by the quality of it content. As such, we scouted around and was fortunate to be able to enlist the talents of Bhimanto Suwasteyo, a veteran Indonesian journalist who has worked for AFP for years and one of the founding editors of The Jakarta Globe to generate our content. He works with Wicaksono, better known as Ndoro Kakung, who is a very respected name in social media circles, as well as a team that supports the content generation in the platform.

On the question of credibility, some might question whether a platform run by a PR consultancy can be trusted not to spin things. To them I can only say that if they understand what PR truly does they would understand that it is about getting companies and clients to communicate authentically and credibly. You cannot do that if your words are not matched with your actions.

Will The Palm Scribe work? Who knows. We live in an age of disruption where old ways of doing things no longer work and nobody can say with great certainty what does and what does not. We at Maverick think that this is worth a try because if we succeed we could potentially change how companies in controversial industries can communicate.

If you are still interested in The Palm Scribe, write to me at ong[at]maverick.co.id or check out its website.

Can even the best PR Experts help the Government?

And it is clear that government officials need to learn PR skills, or hire PR persons, to help them building positive image on behalf of Indonesia.

As Advisor of Association of Public Relation Practitioners (Perhumas), Irawan Abidin wrote, “Ideally, they (PR professionals) should work with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as their target public is located abroad. That will take some doing, some time and some expense. But it is obviously cheaper and much more effective than hiring an international PR firm, and over the years will bring a great deal of benefits, including the growth of mutual understanding between and among nations.”

– Jennifer Siddharta in Should Indonesian Officials Hire PR Experts? at GIVnews.com

If Unspun had written this opinion piece he’d be accused of penning a self-serving article. But he has not and Jennifer Siddharta has said what should be said at GIV.

That the Indonesian Government has appalling PR is beyond doubt but one cannot help but wonder if the right cure is a PR expert.

If PR means the advice, strategy and execution – that includes media training, messaging, media monitoring as well as its social media equivalents – then even the best PR experts may not be able to help.

This is because the root cause of the officials’ PR gaffs is not for lack of PR skill but in the mindset and the logical systems that they go through life with.

What sort of a mental process was it that prompted Jusuf Kalla to blurt out the absurd and defensive we-give-them-11-months-of clean-air statement?

Other than concluding that Kalla almost certainly has a closed mind set, Unspun feels unqualified to diagnose his problem further.

True, the best PR experts should be part psychologists as well as a wide range of interests but what if Kalla and the other officials have such a world view that no amount of persuasion can change their ways?

In a corporation you’d go to the boss man and tell him that he either has over them to stick to the script, to muzzle them or to sack them.

That is why corporations are usually more efficient that governments.

But given the political layout as it is this cannot be done. So the interesting thought experiment is this: If you are a PR expert and approached by the government to help them with their PR to get the ministers on message would you 10 take on the job? and 2) if yes, what conditions would you insist on?

 

 

 

Becoming a teenager

And then we are a teenager.

We are the communications consultancy Maverick that turns 13 this month. Fortunately, as an organisation we’ll not be subjected to the mood swings, moods and hormonal surges of human teenagers. I suppose, however,  that 13 still represents a landmark of sorts as we grow out of the first flush of “startup” years into an ever more established business – with all the attendant challenges, dangers and opportunities that this brings.

 

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Looking back, it has been an exhilarating, frustrating, gratifying, teary and joyful journey rolled into one that saw Maverick grow from a 6-person outfit to what it is today – a communications consultancy with over 75 employees and a reasonably handsome profit.

The most exciting aspect about Maverick, however, are the people who have been and are the Mavbros and Mavchicks. For my business partner Lita and me, there is no greater reward than to see the Mavbros and Mavchicks – who are usually fresh from university – take their first tentative steps and then blooming into formidable and thoroughly first-rate consultants and trusted advisors once they have gone through the Maverick treadmill.

 

I think we have seen dozens of young men and women come into Maverick, stayed for a while – some shorter, some longer – but almost all of them taking away with them new-found hard and soft skills and friendships that will last them a lifetime.

Many who left went on to great jobs with multinational companies and established institutions. Others opted for the family life and still others went off for further studies. very few consultants – I think three or four in 13 years  – went straight to our professional rivals. Even then many of them usually profess to have very fond memories and visceral feelings for Maverick.

In the early days we tried very hard to retain people. These days, however, we realise that the impulse to move on to new things comes with the age group of the people we employ. Gen Y, Z and Millienals have this instinct to seek new pastures every two or three years. That’s life and we’ve come to terms with that. So what we now do is to develop a process of on boarding new recruits very fast and have them nurture, mentor and train new recruits to step up to the plate as they near the time when their Millennial instincts give them itchy feet.

So far it has worked and we are so very happy and proud of the institution we have become. Maverick, if we hear what people are saying are correct, is virtually not only a training centre but also a finishing school for those who aspire to become the best communications professionals after school.

When they join us they not only get the training but they get a buddy to make sure they fit in. After that they come under the attention of supervisors who double up as mentors and friends to help them make the most of their talents. Yet for all the supportive culture we have it is not some la-la land type of organisation. When we work, we work very hard and insist on the highest standards.And then we play hard.

The result is a self-renewing crop of bright talents that would be the envy of any creative consultancy not only in Jakarta but anywhere in the world.

We are very proud of them, these Mavbros and Mavchicks, so proud that we think that their loved ones should also share in some of our pride. That’s the reason why we’ve chosen to hold a “Carnival” – complete with cotton candy floss, popcorn, clowns and magicians – where the Mavbros and Mavchicks can invite their spouses, partners or families along.

We want them to know of these incredible young men and women who work for us, to give them an idea of the office and atmosphere where our consultants spend 8 to 10 hours of their day away from them (we discourage our staff from spending any more time in the office as we believe that the best consultants are those who have full lives outside the office).We want them to share in the experience of our consultants, for their children to know where their father or mother works, for parents to know where their daughters and sons disappear to every working day and the kind of company they keep in the workplace. And also the kind of work  they do (a real challenge since very few people outside PR know what we actually get up to – try devising a way to explain PR to the kids).

But now the music has started up, the families have begun to arrive and I have to go celebrate the achievements of  Mavbros and Mavchicks present and past.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Najib’s March of Folly

In 1985 Pulitzer prize-winning author Barbara Tuchman wrote the book The March of Folly  which was a fascinating study of why leaders from Troy to Vietnam acted against their own self-interest.

If she were updating the book today, Unspun thinks she would certainly consider not only adding Malaysian Premier Najib Razak but perhaps promote him to the front line of the phalanx of marchers.

Najib’s march, where his public image was concerned, actually began in 2009 when, critical bloggers began to expose his foibles and questioned his involvement in the Alantuya affair, where a Mongolian model was killed by the Premier’s bodyguards and then her body was disposed using C4 explosives.

There were rumours — all unproven in a court of law controlled by the Malaysian government –  that she was somehow romantically involved with Najib and the bodyguards acted under orders from the highest leadership in the land.

Najib's detractors are begging to have some fun with his appointment of Lim as a PR guru, as seen in this meme over Twitter
Najib’s detractors are begining to have some fun with his appointment of Lim as a PR guru, as seen in this meme over Twitter

Assailed by bloggers, who enjoyed a freedom of expression that the legacy press in Malaysia did not have, Najib made the decision of employ US lobbying and communications firm APCO to pull him out of the mess.

It was a strange choice because Najib’s problems had nothing to do with communications but everything to do with his character, his evasiveness and the decisions he was unwilling or unable to make. He was virtually un-PRable but the fat fees he offered  APCO prompted the company to embark on a March of Folly of its own: It accepted the appointment.

Critics, including Unspun (see link here) felt that it was an expensive exercise in futility and after many months and millions of taxpayer’s dollars were spent, APCO achieved nothing and its contract was not renewed.

That didn’t deter Najib to forge on in his march though. In spite of an absence of results he apparently retained the head of APCO Malaysia, a certain Ralph Stadlen to continue advising him. Consistent with the deliverables of APCO, the results of Stadlen’s work was not apparent to anyone. Najib’s reputation continued to plummet, especially when the 1MDB scandal broke.

The government, in the story below, has denied that it is paying for Mr Stadlen’s elusive services and claims no knowledge of his existence. This is all an old trick. Instead of paying him from official coffers, they must have got a crony to pay him from their own corporate coffers in return for favours. At any rate Mr Stadlen must cost a bomb, considering his rather flamboyant and public lifestyle (see here).

 

A Sarawak Report photo of Stadlen exhibiting his prowress at having a good time in Malaysia
A Sarawak Report photo of Stadlen exhibiting his prowress at having a good time in Malaysia

Now Najib has taken another step forward in his good march. Besieged by crumbling popular support even within his own political party Umno and stinging from the potshots fired by former premier Tun Mahathir Mohamad has taken to appointing former adman Lim Kok Wing to address his reputational concerns.

The tragedy here is that everyone knows that Lim Kok Wing, talented as he is, cannot save nab from his deeds, himself and his wife. Yet the March of Folly is so compelling that Najib is trying once again to classify his problems as communications-based and outsource it to a communications expert.

But the intriguing question here is what Lim to embark on his own March of Folly? Why when he has no apparent need for the money, take on a job with impossible odds – the pundits are now counting the days before Najib exits the national stage. Why take on a mission impossible and in the process tarnish his own image when Najib ultimately falls? Did Najib offer him an irresistible deal? Did Najib blackmail him into taking on the job? Or is Lim such an adventurer that he would march on where even angles fear to tread?

Who has the answer out there?

 

 

 Lim Kok Wing is Najib’s new PR strategist – The Malaysian Insider

 

Advertising man Tan Sri Lim Kok Wing, who has run Barisan Nasional’s election campaigns, is Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s new public campaign coordinator in a charm offensive to win over Malaysians and shore up the prime minister’s flagging popularity.

Lim rode high during Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s administration, but the former prime minister is now Najib’s harshest critic.

It was learnt that Lim, who has been appointed “special programme coordinator”, has drawn up plans for Najib to go nationwide to gather support and listen to the complaints from the people.

Lim, who founded the Limkokwing University of Creative Technology, will report directly to the Prime Minister’s Office which already has a string of advisors.

The 69-year-old, who set up Malaysia’s first local advertising agency, has been involved in election campaigns for almost four decades.

In 1994, Lim, on recommendation by Dr Mahathir, was tasked by the late Nelson Mandela in South Africa’s first free elections, giving his African National Congress (ANC) the slogan, “A Better Life for All”.

He also conceptualised and ran Putrajaya’s “Tak Nak” anti-smoking campaign and promoted the “Rakan Muda” and “One Heart, One Nation” programmes.

This latest appointment came months after Lim was first appointed as “Goodwill Ambassador” in the Prime Minister’s Department in a Tolerance Day celebration that his university hosted in November last year.

Now, Lim has to run a fully political campaign for the embattled Najib against Dr Mahathir who has openly asked the prime minister to step down over the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal.

In 1975, Lim started Malaysia’s first local advertising firm and went on to start Limkokwing Institute of Creative Technology in 1991, before it became a private university in 2000.

He also sits on the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission’s (MACC) consultation and corruption prevention panel.

Lim now joins the list of four official advisors to Najib – Datuk Seri Dr Abdullah Md Zin, Datuk Johari Baharum, Tan Sri Rais Yatim and Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil.

It was also recently reported that  public relations firm Apco Malaysia’s Paul Stadlen, had also served in the prime minister’s National Communications Team.

The status of  Stadlen’s alleged role in the government remains unclear with Putrajaya saying it did not pay any wages to the former Apco Malaysia boss.

“To date, the government did not pay any salary to Paul Stadlen,” Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Datuk Seri Shahidan Kassim told PAS’s Hanipa Maidin in a written reply in Parliament on Wednesday.

Hanipa had asked about the amount paid to Stadlen who was purportedly a member of the communication team at the Prime Minister’s Office.

However, the reply was silent on whether Stadlen was part of the team. – May 22, 2015.

 

Jokowi to connect better with new Communications Team?

It appears that after months of having no one to tell the story on behalf of the Government and giving rise to uncertainty and confusion about government policies and decisions, President Jokowi may finally be taking a step in the right direction.

According to the Jawa Pos News Network (below), he has appointed Teten Masduki and Sukardi Rinakit to head his communications team, that no one seems to know exists until now.

Teten is an Ombudsman, and the Secretary General of Indonesian Corruption Watch.

Sukardi is a political observer better known by his nom de plume Cak Kardi. Both are long-time associates of Jokowi.

But wait, this is the Jokowi administration so things may not be what they seem. The Communications Team, according to Sukardi here, will not act as the Government’s spokespersons.

Rather they’ll merely be information gatherers to inform the Government what is going on. Not much glory in being media clip vendors but even this might be an improvement from the seemingly clueless and ill informed performance of Jokowi and his Cabinet so far. Sukardi adds that in Jokowi’s view his Ministers will be his spokespersons.

Oh Lord! This is precisely what Jokowi’s government doesn’t need.

Jokowi’s Government has been suffering from cluelessness in how to use communications strategically. They have shown so far that they do not have the means to intercept acquire and process up-to-date information, to plan ahead and coordinate a common line for the President and Ministers to take and to anticipate questions and issues.

The failure to intercept and acquire data may be addressed by the Communications team but what about the planning, coordination and anticipation? This is a communications function and Jokowi would do well to appoint a Communications Chief and a team that can do all these but also to act as a spokesperson for the government.

Then he can on background add context for the media to what the President or his Ministers say or do. Others the media are left paddling in an information vacuum trying to second guess the rationale between what’s being said and done.

Unspun hopes that the new Communications Team would pass this piece of unsolicited but well-meant advice to Jokowi – if they actually manage to intercept it, and are in a position to advice the President based on the information that they get.

Jadi Tim Komunikasi Jokowi, Dua Orang Ini Singkirkan Andi Widjajanto – JPNN.com

 

JAKARTA – Presiden Joko Widodo telah menunjuk Staf Khusus Sekretaris Kabinet Teten Masduki dan Staf Khusus Menteri Sekretaris Negara (Mensesneg) Sukardi Rinakit, untuk memimpin tim komunikasi kepresidenan. Keduanya akan berstatus sebagai Staf Khusus Presiden.

Sekretaris Kabinet, Andi Widjajanto mengatakan, keputusan presiden (Kepres) mengenai penunjukan Teten dan Sukardi sebagai tim komunikasi presiden sudah ditandatangani Jokowi, sapaan karib Joko Widodo.

“Mereka berdua nanti yang nanti akan mengkonsolidasikan tim komunikasi presiden, langsung di bawah presiden. Jadi tanyakan langsung ke mereka,” kata Andi di kantornya, Senin (11/5).

Dengan penunjukan Teten dan Sukardi sebagai pengurus tim komunikasi presiden itu, seskab mengisyaratkan, bahwa Presiden Jokowi tidak akan menunjuk seorang jubir.

Setelah ini, Andi mengisyaratkan dirinya tidak akan lagi sering tampil di media massa. Mengenai kemunculannya di media selama ini, menurut Seskab, karena ia ditugaskan menyampaikan berita kepada media massa selama menyiapkan tim komunikasi presiden.

“Idealnya Sekretaris Kabinet itu back office, tidak muncul ke media. Saya selalu mengatakan ke teman-teman media diusahakan pertanyaanya langsung ke kementerian lembaga yang terkait. Tugas saya back office, di belakang,” tegas Andi. (flo/jpnn)

 

What Rara experienced as an intern at my workplace

Rara and Ken were winners of the PRVaganza 2014, a multi-university competition for communications students. Their team from Univerisiti Gadjah Mada won the competition and the prize for that was an offer of a month’s internship at Maverick.

Ken’s chosen to write about his experience here (see also my pervious posting) but Rara chose to express herself in a  YouTube video. Here is her story.

All I can say is that we were chuffed to have two such bright, enthusiastic and hard working interns and we want to keep them forever once they graduate (and if they want to come back to us).