Hello there, May Lee. Welcome to Marketing In Asia. From the top, tell us who Tan May Lee is.
I was born in Muar, Johor, but never really grew up there. Honestly, the only thing I know about Muar, is my favourite Otak-otak ☺. I spent most of my growing years in Kuala Lumpur, studied in an all-girls school, was a Brown belt holder in Taekwondo, became a librarian, graduated with a BBA and MBA, got married, brought three wonderful girls into this world and today, carved myself a fulfilling career in PR – exactly my 20th year this year!
Out of curiosity – from a communications champion to the other, what is the one skill you wished you’d learnt before jumping into this industry?
Definitely psychology, to understand the science of human behaviour. Having been in the working world for two decades, I can almost say for certainty that handling the complexity of human behaviour is far more challenging than work in itself. Having a deep understanding of social psychology especially, would probably enhance the decision-making process at the workplace or communications approach for a PR activation or campaign.
Another skill would be public speaking. I personally went through the Toastmasters International journey with a focus on communications and leadership, but I believe the public speaking skill would be beneficial for everyone from a very young age. It truly helps to be vocal and to communicate effectively! And this includes body language too.
May Lee, you have worked across many PR outfits, doing what you do best, getting vava voom everyday and now you are currently the Partner & Executive Director Of Perspective Strategies. Not to mention, you’re also an EXCO member in the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO); now, that’s wowzers! My question is, did you always want to work in the Communications and PR industry?
Me being in PR, and me being in the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO)… well, all I can say is that serendipity and fate have worked its magic!
After I completed my Sixth Form (STPM at that time!), I was presented with two choices of studies at the University of Malaya – either a Bachelor of Law or Bachelor of Business Administration. I took the latter in a heartbeat, and with no regrets until today.
Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, upon graduating with a Business degree in the late 1990s, I was all geared up to work in an investment banking firm. But things were not on my side. Malaysia was still bleeding from the 1997/98 financial crisis. Many corporate finance divisions were downsized and hiring was freezed.
I still had hope. And was tenacious in landing my dream job in an investment banking firm. But in the meantime, I took up a part-time job in a PR firm – compiling project reports, pasting news clippings, binding, photocopying.. One day, the Head of Corporate/Financial Practice striked up a conversation with me and the next thing I know, I was asked to see the Managing Director for an interview. On that same day, I was informed that I was hired! That company was Edelman PR Worldwide and 20 years down the road, I’m still in PR, loving what I do!
But in 2012, I was hit by a life-changing experience. I was at the peak of my career, with an unblemished track record. And I lost my job because I was pregnant. I decided to file a case at the Civil Court for wrongful dismissal on the basis of the pregnancy. However, there was an absence of statute that prohibits pregnancy discrimination, except for the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), of which Malaysia ratified in 1995.
After an almost two years of legal battle, I lost. I was back at square one. I lost because there were no legal statutes that protect pregnant women against job discrimination in the private sector. But it was then, in 2016, that I decided to have a conversation with Sumitra Visvanathan, the Executive Director of WAO – and together with my PR agency, Perspective Strategies, as WAO’s Communications Agency, we kicked off a series of communications and advocacy campaign relating to pregnancy and workplace discrimination. We have triggered conversations amongst corporates, lawmakers and associations, underwent reviews of the Gender Equality Act, submitted proposed amendments to the Employment Act 1955 and even won numerous PR awards along the way. It’s been a 6-year battle for me, but we’re confident that change is inevitable and will soon come!
So did I always want to work in PR… I think fate brought me to PR, and I feel that perhaps this is the best career for me, and for that, I’m thankful! It’s not always that you are still motivated to get to work, having been in the same industry for 20 years!
In your opinion, how has marketing, branding and communication impacted the worldwide market?
I would say that marketing, branding (internal & external) and PR are all components of a brand or company’s communication function. It is as vital a component as other traditional functions within a business organisation.
However, generally, there is a low understanding of the functions and value of PR, outside the realm of marketing. One of the reasons stem from its intangible value derived, unlike marketing functions which have a clear ROI as KPI. Though PR may bring an indirect, intangible value to a company brand, it contributes directly to brand building and brand equity.
Organisations need to have a critical look at the function of communications, especially PR, as it encompasses a 360° communications via digital platforms, Business-to-Consumer (B2C), Business-to-Business (B2B), stakeholder engagement, corporate citizenship as well as issues or crisis management.
Communications should be a sustainable function, instead of just ad-hoc or reactive when a critical scenario arises. After all, the PR function is still a more cost-effective component when compared with the well-versed marketing function, but both components should be complementary to reap the fullest synergy for a company’s brand and reputation.
How would you describe your job in five words?
“I TRULY LOVE MY JOB!!!”
I’m truly blessed to do what I do, and what I love. It’s fulfilling to see happy clients. It’s fulfilling to see campaign results. It’s fulfilling to obtain industry recognition. And most important of all, to see the impact that strategic PR and Communications have in the financial and non-financial growth of a brand and/or company – that is truly invaluable! Having a young, dynamic team at Perspective Strategies definitely adds to the excitement of working with various clients across different industries and campaigns!
Throughout your career life in PR, who were your valued mentors?
Ting Fong Fong, who was my first mentor as I began my PR career in Edelman PR Worldwide – she’s ever so kind yet critical, in a purposeful way. My next mentor was PR veteran Millicent Danker who founded Perception Management, whom I learnt the very high standards of being meticulous and tenacious. Finally, I had the privilege to work with PR veteran duo, Ming & K.H. Lim, who not only hired me when I was pregnant (of which I’m truly thankful!), but also taught me about 2 critical life skills – the art of meaningful conversation and the art of managing difficult people.
Aside from mentors, I’m thankful for having a great business partner in the Founder, Principal Partner & Managing Director of Perspective Strategies, Andy See. I only have one important word that explains our partnership – and that is “TRUST” – which is the most important foundation in any relationship. And as our agency is now part of the Public Relations Global Network (PRGN), I’m truly glad to be learning from great PR practitioners from around the world!
What do you love doing?
As a mom to three young kids, it’s pretty tough to keep up with any hobbies really! So whenever I can, I’d travel the world, and whenever I can’t, I’d sing my heart out in the car. I also founded the Gadget-free Kids (Malaysia) Facebook page, advocating for parents and caregivers to enrich the lives of children through experiential-based activities that facilitate the positive growth and acquisition of cognitive, social and language skills. And of course, I’m now into my second term as an EXCO member of WAO, championing gender equality for a better Malaysia! Other than that, sincerely, I love just having the opportunity to chill with friends, having a good conversation and learning new things along the way!
Any advice you wish to share to our readers out there?
Find your passion, be tenacious in all that you do, and always aim to deliver beyond expectations!
“The will to win, the desire to succeed, the urge to reach your full potential… these are the keys that will unlock the door to personal excellence.”