Contrary to belief, public relations is not a phenomenon of the modern world but rather has historical roots; 1900 to be exact. This is in conjunction with the establishment of the Publicity Bureau, which also commemorates the founding of the first public relations profession.I had the chance to speak with Jacob Puthenparambil, the CEO of REDHILL on what makes a good public relations agency and the challenges he has had to be where he is now. Two words to describe our chat – honest and insightful.
You started the agency with a partner slightly more than four years ago. Tell us about REDHILL and its core activities.
REDHILL is a full-service PR and communications firm which prides itself in the responsiveness and agility we bring to our practice. We provide strategic counsel for public relations, digital narratives, crisis management, internal communications and branding across industries and sectors. Driven by a team of passionate communications specialists, we craft campaigns that build a brand’s reputation and market share. We are also building on a public affairs and government relations practice. All in all, we aim to be a trusted advisor and ‘one stop shop’ to help clients with a range of services to allow them to get to the next level.
REDHILL has been named as the third fastest growing agency globally, based on the Holmes Report 2019. That is exceptional, Jacob – congratulations! What is the biggest component for REDHILL’s success?
It was very humbling to be on that list, and in fact, we were the fastest growing agency outside of the US according to that list. This year, we are again on the fast movers list! We are encouraged and see this as a testament to the consistent standard in the delivery and execution of our services. It also means there is no chance to slack and rest on early laurels. We are enormously grateful to our clients and partners for reposing that trust in us.
With every journey there are always ups-and-downs. What are some of the challenges you faced?
This is a good question! And we have indeed had as many challenges along the way. One of my personal mantras is a quote by Ray Dalio- “If you don’t let up on yourself and instead become comfortable always operating with some level of pain, you will evolve at a faster pace. That’s just the way it is.” We have learnt to embrace pain and challenges along the way.
I recently wrote a piece about this, titled “Growing your business through pain”, where I shared the story of our journey. One memory that stands out is a particular day, early on when my co-founder, Surekha, and I went to every major bank in the CBD area where we were rejected till we just sat at the quayside steps facing the Asian Civilizations Museum with our biggest purchase order to date and no options to discount it! As a newcomer, we wanted to attract the best talents but with no reputation yet- this was another huge challenge.
2020 has been quite an uphill ride for most businesses around the world. How has this global pandemic affect REDHILL?
There are ups and downs but business fundamentals are the key to stability. Like everyone else, the biggest difference has been the work from home mode that we had to adopt. While this was always the case at REDHILL- the scale at which we did this was unprecedented and invariably, this means missing out of the fun and the loss of camaraderie that comes with being physically at the office.
What are the steps taken to cushion the effects?
We hope to stay the course in the face of Covid-19 by managing our expenses – especially non-essential travel- which have been all on hold any way- and other expansionary plans such as new office moves. We have doubled down on working with clients to ensure cash flow mechanisms that are fair to all.
We believe that it is important to continue our support to our clients, some of which are themselves facing huge challenges so that in the recovery mode- it becomes a strong tailwind. As such, we are committed to providing the same quality of service to our clients through these challenging times, and are working closely with our global teams to give us enhanced agility to provide uninterrupted service to our clients. We have also activated a business continuity plan that includes alternative work arrangements for our staff to ensure their welfare.
What are the plans for REDHILL once the world opens up again, Jacob?
It is always full steam ahead for us at REDHILL, regardless of good or challenging times. We will continue on this path, doing our best work for our clients and growing our business. That is the only way forward! We will come out to an uncertain world even when all this is over- it will be important to maintain our agility and meander through the next phase of global recovery. We will also build on the learnings from the beginning of the pandemic and take them with us- where relevant- into the new normal.
I am very curious. As a seasoned Public Relations practitioner, how has PR evolved over the years?
Technology and the way people consume messages coming their way has changed public relations in very significant ways over the years. Take a start-up for instance – even as the entry barriers have lowered to start a business, it is becoming increasingly difficult to get noticed by your stakeholders, be they customers, potential employees, venture capitalists, government bodies, etc. Traditionally businesses used the media to get access to stakeholders but in 2020, the definition of media has blurred! Is it Netflix? Facebook? Instagram? TikTok? Do people read newspapers and magazines anymore? It’s a similar thing with the skill sets. While core skills such as good communication and interpersonal abilities remain constant, technology is driving the demand for new skills.
I know every REDHILL-er, if I may call it that, is proud that REDHILL is a Singapore born, global agency with deep Asian roots. What does this mean for you?
This is indeed true and we derive our strength from this. Being a Singapore born agency, we have imbibed the ‘punch above your weight’ DNA and attitude. I have often said that we want to be DBS or Singapore Airlines of the communications industry. So, that also means it drives our ambition and aspirations. As the nation itself, our outlook is very international while maintaining that deep sense of groundedness, values, culture and teamwork.
In your opinion, what are the elements that set apart a good leader to a mediocre one?
One of the things you see is that difficult times bring out the best or worst in leaders. How a leader responds to crisis and in good times sets them apart. We have seen over the last few months what this looks like, and three elements stand out:
- Those who embrace open and truthful communication
- Those that communicate and make decisions with great empathy and understanding, and
- Those who take responsibility. Letting the buck stop with them. Be it taking the deep cuts before cutting headcount or ensuring the welfare of colleagues and employees.
Public Relations has always been thought of as glamorous and fun. Is this a myth? Enlighten us, Jacob.
Yes and no! There is a lot of hard work and sweat that comes with the glamour and fun of working in Public Relations. It also really depends on the person’s definition of glamorous and fun!
That is the beauty of public relations – there are multiple facets to it that appeal to different types of people and their idea of fun. There is tech PR for those who love technology and gadgets, financial PR for the finance heads, or consumer PR for those who love working with brands. I love the dynamic nature of public relations, no two days are the same, and that for me makes it glamorous and fun.
We have a pool of Gen-Z readers on Marketing In Asia aspiring to be in Public Relations. Is there anything you want to tell them?
- Be honest: and through that build your credibility. Walk your talk.
- Seize opportunities: even if this means taking the time to reflect, review and adapt during a down period such as the one we are faced with. Try to have fun along the way.
- Be nice, be grateful: A grateful disposition is one of the best personal PR strategies. It reverberates well in creating a positive reputation. And, be nice- someone you used to manage could be someone you pitch to a few years down the line!
- And importantly, build resilience: learn and grow through pain.