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Jakarta Post

Ong Hock Chuan: '€˜Times change, but human nature remains constant'€™

  • Prasiddha Gustanto

    The Jakarta Post

  /   Mon, December 14, 2015   /  09:23 am
Ong Hock Chuan: '€˜Times change, but human nature remains constant'€™

Photos: JP/Aulia R. Sungkar

Public-relations heavyweight Ong Hock Chuan shares his views on the PR industry and leadership in today'€™s rapidly changing world.

It was seven years ago that co-founder and partner of communications consultancy Maverick, Ong Hock Chuan, read Robert Scoble'€™s 2006 work Naked Conversations: How Blogs are Changing the Way Businesses Talk with Customers.

 Ong, who since 2002 has partnered with Lita Soenardi to run Maverick, said that the insights he gained from Scoble opened his eyes to the power of the Internet. This was a time well before social media became the dominant force in the global-cultural landscape that it is today.

 Back then, most people agreed that the Internet would be influential, but few had any idea just how much it would shape the globe.

 To help see into the future, he decided to organize Pesta Blogger (Blogger Party), which became the biggest gathering of bloggers in Indonesia.

 It ran for five years and brought together 1,500 bloggers at its peak. Through it, he learned that his area of expertise, public relations, would see its role in society undergo massive changes thanks to the Internet.

 What used to be a clear and established system '€” public relations groups acting as a '€œgo-between'€ between their clients and the public '€” has evolved into a more organic relationship between all parties involved.

The future of public relations

 Back then, the role of mainstream media was significant for promoting businesses'€™ products or services. Today, businesses can go directly to their clients and the clients can talk back.

 '€œThese days, with social media, you can go direct. I can talk to my clients directly through whatever social media platform they use,'€ he said. '€œPR has one leg in media relations. The other leg is advising companies on how to build relationship with consumers '€” and that is what we'€™re doing.'€

 The Internet has brought about changes in the industry, and also to the way public-relations companies are lead. The internet makes things very transparent. It used to be that if a person spouted rubbish, a newspaper would print it and it would cause the readers to get outraged and write a letter to the editor.

 '€œNow if I say something, my readers and my audience can directly flame me on Twitter, etc.,'€ Ong said. '€œIt puts a premium on credibility. Credibility is much more important now, more than ever, because the Internet makes things more transparent, so people have to be very skilled at using social media.'€

 Ensuring that client companies maintain good relations with the public in this '€œage of disruption'€ is vital for public-relations organizations today and will remain so in years to come.

 The future, to Ong, is about getting people to be more open, more accountable, sound and credible. It'€™s not just about telling them what to say and what not to say. He added that very often, public-relations companies today have to advise clients on what to do and what not to do.

 '€œPeople have this impression that PR advisers are kind of like, '€˜Let me tell you how to spin this thing'€™. If a company does something wrong, well, what do you do about it? Apologize. And set in place a system so that it doesn'€™t happen again,'€ he said. '€œOtherwise, why should people believe you? Again, credibility. If you can'€™t communicate in a credible fashion, people will not only not listen to you, they can flame you on social media.'€

 Understanding the new wave of workers

A public-relations company leader also has to consider the generation of employees that actually grew up during social media'€™s cultural explosion, the Millennials. Being able to survive as a company today means adjusting to the behavioral patterns of today'€™s generation of workers.

The average Millennial in Indonesia is entering into a job market that gives them a wide degree of choices and is part of a constantly-growing society with a huge need for talent. Adaptation is the key. It is important to make the most out of each worker while they'€™re there.

At Maverick, Ong and his team have designed a campus-like training structure that allows new recruits to hit the ground running within two months. Each is appointed a buddy to make sure they fit in fast. They are taught ownership, given training and made accountable for their projects.

New people at the company, after finishing their first-ever event, assignment or presentation, are given office-wide recognition. They get their picture taken with an Instamatic camera. The company rings a bell. The photos are pasted on a wall for all to see. '€œIf you'€™ve been in the game a few years, this is no big deal, but if you'€™re a fresh graduate, [you'€™ll think], '€˜Wow, this is my first assignment!'€™. It gives them a buzz,'€ Ong said.

Maverick also has a recruitment program where they go to campuses to run selection contests in a similar vein to '€œThe Apprentice'€. They hold workshops to teach skills such as how to write, structure and present proposals.

The ultimate prize is an internship at the company. '€œWe'€™ve had a few interns, some of whom are still working with us, who have proven to be very good,'€ he said.

Constants in public relations

The spark for what Ong refers to '€œa revolution no smaller in scale than the Industrial Revolution'€ was in 1996 with the advent of Netscape. This gave the public a user-friendly interface that helped to democratize information. It has made the world so much more fast-paced.

It has also led to uncertainty. Brands need to change the way they communicate in this modern environment where the Internet is ubiquitous. Controlled messages are going out the door. This age is one filled with disruptions.

At the end of the day, though, despite the institutional changes that public relations leaders need to make in order to survive, some things will always remain the same.

'€œIn the Old Testament, there is a line that says, '€˜there is no new thing under the sun, only the history you do not know.'€™ Things change, human nature doesn'€™t. People love, hate, grieve, laugh. The technology and time frames may change, but these are the things that matter to them. Same thing with PR. In a way, PR is a craft designed around persuasion. How you persuade people has been, is and will be constant.'€



Malaysia, Feb. 8, 1959

Career Highlights

* Co-founder and partner at Maverick (2002 '€“ present)
* Managing director, Ogilvy PR Singapore (2000 '€“ 2002)
* Technical adviser, Ogilvy PR Indonesia (1997 '€“ 2000)
* Correspondent for Asia Times (1996 '€“ 1997)
* Managing editor of China News (1992 '€“ 1996)
* Journalist at The New Straits Times, The Star and the South China Morning Post (1979 '€“ 1992)


* Bachelor of Arts majoring in journalism from the University of South Australia
* Short course in Mandarin at Nanjing Normal University, China

At Ease

Passion for tai chi

I'€™ve recently built my passion for tai chi, and I regularly practice it. There are several levels to tai chi. One is a physical level. It'€™s actually very hard to do the movements right. The more intellectual part of it is the interplay of energy '€” How do you expend the energy? How do you split the energy?

Family vacation

Traveling is one good way of recharging my batteries. I like to take along my wife and my son, as a family, for holidays. Italy and Croatia are high on the list of our favorite destinations. Last year we went to Italy for a walking holiday. We like to visit Croatia for the country'€™s wealth of beautiful panoramas.

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