Career Advice Successful High flyers’ story

Daring to keep it real in PR

Contrary to what some might think about public relations (PR) executives, Clara Shek has never been one to sugarcoat or gloss over things. Instead, she advocates a policy of candour and authenticity, which, as MD at Ogilvy PR, she employs in both her internal and external dealings.

Why the emphasis on authenticity?
Some people have a tendency to say things they feel others would like to hear, rather than what they really mean. I don’t think that’s the best way of nurturing a trusting environment – or trusting staff, for that matter. Because if a person doesn’t know what people think of him, he ends up having a false sense of security, which inhibits his ability to progress.

That’s why I believe in authenticity, in being true to yourself. Ultimately, I think everyone has a great side. It’s simply a matter of whether they can discover it.

Has nurturing this culture had its challenges?
I remember giving feedback to one of my subordinates once, which she took very personally. I didn’t realise back then that the way I delivered the information might have been hurtful. So I’ve had to develop more sensitivity about giving feedback.

What’s it like to work for you?
I am a straight-talker. I say what I mean and, again, always try to be authentic. A big part of our role [as PR executives] is to be a storyteller for our clients. In generating those stories, I think it’s incredibly important to be genuine. You need to be able to discover what the inner greatness of an organisation is and tell people about it in an authentic way.

Does the PR industry lack authenticity?
People seem to think that as a PR person, you always need to be very diplomatic and always need to say things that are “appropriate”. But I believe there is no conflict in saying things that are true in a way that other people can acknowledge and accept.

What’s your take on hierarchy?
I don’t believe in hierarchy. Yes, organisations have structures, but I firmly believe that the best ideas can come from anyone.

A hierarchy exists because there is a need for accountability and a need for mentoring and nurturing people. However, I have no problem taking suggestions from the most junior colleagues.

Are you very hands-on?
I am quite hands-on when it comes to issues, crises or defining a brand.

Very often, a client comes to us for a brand-consulting assignment, where we need to craft what the brand positioning should be. When it comes to that, I’m very hands-on. I would facilitate workshops and work with the team to crack what the brand stands for. Once that’s defined, I would let the team run with it. They do, of course, consult me on certain things, but I try to be more hands-off at that stage.

How do you deal with inter-divisional conflicts, such as over clients?
That might have been an issue in the past, but these days, we tend to operate more as all-round stewards. We assess our clients’ needs and implement strategies based on those needs. It’s all about providing the right solution, be it through PR, advertising or otherwise. I believe in doing the right thing, rather than just doing things right. Too many people, for whatever reason, tend to jump directly to the tactics without thinking about what the real problem is.

How do you handle uncertainty?
During uncertain times, we adopt more prudence, particularly with things like hiring. We don’t want to take on staff only to let them go shortly after. That’s irresponsible. However, I feel that challenging economic times also present opportunities to find talent that might not be available otherwise.

What were the challenges you faced when you moved into management?
The early stage of my career was very rapid - I was a general manager when in my 20s. I was very lucky, because I had great mentors who trusted me and gave me lots of opportunities.

When I moved into my former role at Edelman, the regional leaders were also very trusting. Of course, there were still challenges, because by that point, it was not just about my craft or how well I handled clients, but also about how well I managed my team.

What are your views on work-life balance?
We have flexible work schedules here [at Ogilvy PR]. So if a person is working late one night, for example, they don’t need to come early the following morning.

We also gave everyone a laptop so that they can login anywhere, anytime. In the event of a crisis – which usually happens on a Friday – staff members can handle it from where they are, as opposed to having to come into the office. Making sure everyone has a laptop and mobile device was one of the first things I implemented after joining the firm, not to encourage them to work non-stop, but rather to give them added flexibility.

What do you do to de-stress?
I spend time with my kids – I have a seven-year-old and a 12-year-old. Spending time with them allows me to not think about work. I also do yoga and swim.

Interestingly, I do not find my job to be stressful. Everybody says that PR is a stressful profession, but I personally do not feel that. In fact, I think I’m addicted to it. I’m particularly addicted to crises. When there’s a crisis, I get a sense of thrill. I find it challenging, exciting even. I would never wish for a client to be in a crisis. But when they are, I find it interesting. A lot of my staff feel the same way.

What’s the most noteworthy aspect of Ogilvy’s corporate culture?
The pervasive creativity. We try to ensure that there is a lot of creativity injected in everything we do.

We try to impose a “what if” approach. So instead of being order-takers, we see ourselves more as order-makers.

Say, for example, a client asks us to organise a press conference. While it would be easy for us to put together a perfect press conference, we might venture to ask whether a press conference would really be the best approach. It’s about challenging the status quo; pushing the envelope a little further.

How do you instil that mindset in junior staff members?
We encourage everybody to speak their mind and have teambuilding activities to help them overcome the fear that might be associated with that.

Very often, the underlying reason why people don’t speak up is because they have fear - They fear they are not speaking sense, that they might be judged or rejected. Fear is often the biggest barrier to making our “what if” approach come alive.

What are some of the more important personality traits for a PR executive?
Passion is essential - you have to love your job to be at your best. Curiosity, as well - We always look for people who are the curious type, who constantly look at new things happening outside the company. Bravery is also an important trait. We need people who are not afraid to speak their mind and, as mentioned, challenge the status quo.

And how about skills?
Writing, storytelling, media relations and event management are essential, as is client servicing. Those are the hard skills.

Then, of course, there are soft skills - problem-solving, strategic thinking, creativity and personal interaction.