StarHub's Veronica Lai on understanding PR through the eyes of legal

Trained first in legal, and now adding on a communications and PR role, was an interesting move for Veronica Lai, (pictured right), who first took on the title of chief corporate officer at StarHub about a year ago. This comes despite the two functions often not seeing eye to eye during a crisis.

Agreeing that she has had to change her lens now the communications function has been added to her remit, Lai explained that from a PR perspective, she has encountered new considerations coming into play – nuance being one of them. Before her comms role, Lai spent nearly 20 years with the telco, leading the legal capabilities. She started as a senior corporate counsel and climbed her way to helm the roles of general counsel and company secretary. Lai currently oversees the legal aspects of the business, but also works closely with the board of directors and the telco’s regulatory functions.

For someone with more than two decades of expertise in legal, Lai said during a fireside chat at Marketing’s PR Asia conference that nuances are a PR team’s ammunition and she sees the addition of the PR function "complementary" to the role she was already holding.

“What we have learnt to do is apologise by all means if we are at fault – but as PR professionals, we need to learn to be careful about how you word that apology. Are you apologising for the inconvenience caused or apologising for the lapse or delay?”

More from her chat below:

Marketing: How can PR and comms come across as a core function rather than a supporting one to a board?

Lai: I think it depends on the conditioning of a company over a very long period of time. We don’t have this problem. The board values brand equity and I think what is important is to continue communication.

At StarHub, as a team, we have a compilation of industry news, and apart from communicating it to our staff, we also share that with our board, so they are kept abreast. We try not to go to the board for solutions too often.

The last thing you want is an invasive board that pokes its fingers into management and executive decision-making. That is not the best way for the company to work. The board is actually much more involved on a higher strategic level. But we also want them to feel assured that we know what we are doing.

So keeping them abreast of what is happening helps, as well as knowing when to escalate issues. In our company, we have a system whereby typically, it will be the CEO and I who will talk to the board.

Unless it is a subject matter expert, then the respective executive will be present, but in general we try to have a more streamlined approach to who will talk to the board, and I think that helps with the communication flow as well.

Marketing: What do you think PR will be like in this age of transformation and disruption?

Lai: PR is key and it is not because I am preaching, but I sincerely believe so. It helps as things become more competitive and more proliferated, and the gap between competitive service offerings close.

What then sets a company apart that gives the competitive edge? It must be the brand. And what makes a brand special? Communication. Communication across all the touch-points and channels. And who will help you to tie all that together right is ultimately the PR professionals.

Marketing: There might be times when consumers find out about news – good or bad – first from the media instead of the company. Have you had such situations? How do you handle it?

Lai: Yes, [it has happened], but thankfully not often. The first thing we need to do is to have a tab on the media at all times. And for that, I have to thank our existing comms and social media teams. They are really very dedicated.

We are fortunate that we have tools out there to help us monitor, and of course, in this age where all of us are connected, you can actually set your own alerts. But beyond these alerts, what is more important is how your team reacts to it. And that is where the agility part kicks in, and for us, we have a process to know which are the stakeholders to pull in.

StarHub also previously used to throw media events during Chinese New Years to connect and interact with the press and publications in Singapore. But what we found is the sit-down lunches did not give me enough time to fully form that connection needed with the media. So the comms team and I then decided to break that conventional method and strategise on private lunches twice a month with different desks.

We found that, indeed, the human element is so important because when we are trying to communicate a message, the trust element, along with transparency and authenticity, is also critical. And to get your message out, we cannot work on our own, and have to work with each of our stakeholders.

Marketing: How do you handle customers who refuse to take conversations offline and insist on communicating on social media?

Lai: We will take the step to actually visit them face-to-face. It is not easy, but if it is important enough, even my CEO will come to your door. That is how we view it. We have done this countless times, but hopefully we don’t have to do it very often with every single customer given we have more than two million customers!

But if the situation warrants it, and particularly if we really have been at fault with service lapses time and again, there’s no excuse and we will have that face-to-face conversation.

Marketing: There are some CEOs out there who are very vocal. Does it post as a headache to a comms professional or do you welcome that?

Lai: I think I am more conservative. It could be because I come from a legal background, and as much as I like my CEO to be out there, I would prefer if he is well-briefed and the messages are aligned.

Thankfully so far we haven’t had great problems with that, because the CEO ultimately is accountable for the entire organisation and if he goes out there with a tweet that is not holistic, it would take a lot for us to undo it so we would prefer a more co-ordinated response.

A large part of that has a lot to do with building the trust with the chief executive. He has to feel that he is part of the team, he must trust the team to be able to give him good judgment calls; ultimately he will make the executive decision, but if you show your value and your recommendations are always reasoned and it makes business sense and is holistic, then you can work together in a partnership well.

Marketing: Is your CEO the spokesperson in every crisis?

Lai: The approach to take is a multi-faceted one, so it really depends on what the issue is. We like to showcase our bench strength so generic questions will go to a StarHub spokesperson, and if it is a strategic question, we may attribute it to the CEO, and of course, the quotes will have to be cleared with him.

If it is a technical question, we will showcase our CTO, similarly if it is a HR question, we will attribute it to our chief HR officer, and so on. The strategy really is to see what is most appropriate and what will resonate best as the subject matter expert.