Interview with: Graham Stewart
Managing Director of Klareco Communications
Please introduce yourself and Klareco Communications to our readers.
My name is Graham Stewart, Managing Director of Klareco Communications in Myanmar. My background is in public affairs and journalism in the United Kingdom where I worked in the Houses of Parliament for a former defence minister and spent ten years writing for The Times newspaper in London. I moved to Singapore in 2012 and I set up our public relations agency in Yangon in 2014. We’ve changed the name since then, but have continued to build our reputation in delivering high quality content and positive coverage for our clients.
Senior management in Myanmar often have a good understanding about what marketing and advertising involves but are less clear about the benefits of public relations – that’s one clear difference between this country and many other Asian markets where ‘PR’ is regarded as a core dimension to how companies project themselves.
Our role is to help politicians, trend setters, and business people – indeed anyone in public life – to better explain what they do in ways that will enthuse and grow their audience. We’re about enhancing understanding and generating the loyalty which is so important in building brand reputation.
When was your first trip to Myanmar and how much has Myanmar changed since then?
I first came to Yangon in 2012 whilst I was working for a major private in Singapore. Yangon was then a beguiling city, but one struggling with decades of neglect. ATMs were only just making an appearance; shopping malls were underwhelming. Pavements were obstacle courses. But I found it as beautiful city and it’s been a privilege to see how many of the changes since then have been for the better. Decent hotels and restaurants have proliferated. Shopping malls like Myanmar Plaza and Junction City are proving very popular.
The pace of positive change is much less evident in the rest of the country. I travel around Myanmar quite a lot and smaller towns and countryside beyond Yangon seem unchanged to what I first encountered seven years ago.
How did you end up in current position?
Back in 2014, everyone was talking about Myanmar as the ‘last great frontier market’ – a large market of vast untapped potential. There was still a measure of political uncertainty – it was a year before the 2015 general election – but we felt that the risk was worthwhile as the country was on a reform path, it was opening up and we wanted to be part of its early stage of public affairs and public communications. So I came here in 2014 to build up an office in Yangon. Since then, the market has grown. The majority of our clients remain international companies that have entered the Myanmar market and want to get understanding about the media and government here from those who speak the language and know who is who and how they can be engaged. We are helping them to be familiar with stakeholders here and to have a better understanding of the country’s market.
What I wanted to do more is to help Myanmar companies and I think amongst them there is still under-awareness about what better public relations could do for them.
What are the principal activities of Klareco Communications?
There are four pillars to what we do. The first one is high quality content development.
There’s a perception that PR is all about churning out press releases. That’s a small part of what we do. Greater value comes from creating high quality content. For this, our clients rely on our high quality writing, insights and research. Clarity of thought and expression gives our clients the edge. This is important not just for developing the brand but also attracting international investment. Investors are interested in companies which have the best growth potential. Our ability to help our clients articulate their forward-thinking, ahead of the game, advantage is what makes them attractive to potential investors and business partners.
The second pillar is media relations. We have a very good level of connection and relationships with the media here. We ensure that we get the content where it should be. Most of that means mainstream media – TV channels, newspapers, magazines – but the and digital dimension is increasingly important as well.
The third dimension is public affairs. We give out clients a clear sense of the political and regulatory reality. Fourthly, we are active in advising on crisis and issues management.
Klareco’s own team is diverse, with highly skilled Myanmar staff alongside those of us with international experience, like Lien Nguyen and myself. So, we have the right blend of local perspectives as well as international experiences.
What are the differences of Klareco Communications in Myanmar and in other countries?
Klareco is an Asia-based public relations company headquartered in Singapore, with offices across other Southeast Asia countries.
In Singapore, we are very involved with world leading companies particularly in fintech and in pharmaceuticals. These are often quite technical and high level of issues for which our clients rely on our ability to master their subject and to make technical issues comprehensive both to a specialist and to a wider audience.
But I think it is a mistake to think mainstream media will be dead and all you need to do is post on Facebook.
Myanmar’s economy is slightly different. We are much more involved in helping companies explain what they are doing in the market more broadly, whether it’s to consumers, media or government. Our focus has been corporate communications, particularly those companies that recently arrived here from abroad, market entrants, and Myanmar-born-and-bred companies which are seeking foreign investors and want to distinguish themselves from their competitors.
Who are your target market segment for Klareco Communications? We are very focused on helping both Myanmar conglomerates and other major corporations attract foreign investors coming here. The energy sector remains a key sector. We want to extend much further in financial communications where we think there is a need for banks and other financial institutions to better explain how transformative their roles in financial inclusion and driving economic opportunity really are. We are a leader for fintech industry in Singapore and I want to share that expertise in Myanmar to ensure that the opportunities are properly understood.
How challenging was the Myanmar market for you to do business and how did you overcome them?
For overseas companies and investors here, Myanmar can be seen as a daunting place. Although English is quite widely spoken in the business world, the Burmese language naturally predominates in ‘the public arena.’ Market entrants need help navigating the language with media here. We provide not just language capability but deep understanding of the media, the journalists and connections that you need to have here. This is not a market where you can just send out an English-language press release attached to an email and expect to be rewarded with insightful in-depth coverage in response. As important as press release are, if you do not create in-depth understanding of what you are doing you will never maximize the gains that good public relations offers you. You need to explain yourself more fully, let your audience get to know you. That involves giving interviews and opening yourself up to the media, speaking at conferences and other events and being open and available to a range of relevant stakeholders. A more discerning consumer and investment landscape in Myanmar’s economy has developed over these last five years. This has shifted the role of high-end public relations from marginal to essential.
Can you share with us your opinion on what the current economy situations in Myanmar are?
So much is dependent upon the vitality of the financial sector. There is huge growth potential in the insurance sector and I think the potential to offer Myanmar people financial products that minimize their exposure to the vagaries of risk will be one of the compelling narratives of the coming years. But inflation remains a worry. If it continues to eat away at rising living standards then that will reduce the vast potential of a larger consumer society upon which projected growth in the retail sector depends. Explaining monetary policy is a challenge we would be up for!
What are the major contributions delivered by Klareco Communications?
We have helped companies and individuals speak with more confidence and more openly. I think that this is valuable not just for our clients, but for Myanmar as a whole. When I first visited Myanmar back in 2012, I did not detect a strong desire by the most important people in politics and businesses to really communicate what they were doing. Although it is working in progress, there has been a measurable improvement in openness in the last three years. Klareco Communications will continue to help this process.
How are current trends in PR industry shaping Myanmar? There is more competition. I foresee that a consequence of this greater choice will be greater specialization by the PR firms here. Not all agencies will offer exactly the same services. If they do just offer the same thing then there will be a ‘race to the bottom’ with price becoming the determinant, rather more than quality. The various agencies should look into what they are good at, and specialize in those areas. At Klareco, we have digested that message. Hence, we specialize in corporate communications, financial communications, investor relations, crisis comms and public affairs. These are the areas that we are good at – and we are therefore focusing on.
Also there is much more interest in digital comms compared to when I first arrived here in 2014. That is going to continue to grow. But I think it is a mistake to think mainstream media will be dead and all you need to do is post on Facebook. Often, it is higher-end content you placed in the mainstream media which then goes viral online, not the other way around. So we sometimes caution against a purely digital strategy. The digital strategy should be a part of wider strategy if it is to have its greatest impact.
If you could make one change to current government policy, what would it be?
It is not for a communications company to tell a democratically-elected government what to do. But in our interactions with the business communities we hear frustration not so much about the broad direction of policy but about the pace and comprehensiveness of regulatory implementation. The ability to deliver ‘on the ground’ is fundamental and to build confidence in the ability to do so.