23 Feb 2009

Confessions of a CEO: Michael de Kretser, CEO, GO Communications


What do you like most about your job?

As Rudyard Kipling said, it gives one the opportunity to walk with kings, and still retain the common touch. I believe communications today is the most potent and powerful tool mankind can possess. From the days of sign language to ‘blog’ language, it’s all about communicating. I’m just born lucky to be in the communication industry — I truly have a passion for it.

What changes have you seen in the industry over the years?

More and more companies believe that PR (public relations) should be part of their marketing mix. It wasn’t always that way. But unfortunately, PR is still not a respected industry unlike other professions like law, accounting, and medicine. PR, like a story in a paper, can overnight affect a company’s share price. Yet how much is this worth? Corporations still don’t realise the power and significance of communication. Although this realisation is slowly growing, unfortunately, the majority [of people] employed in the communications PR line are still well below the skill-level required. This is reflected in the fees and generally, the results obtained. If you compare the Malaysian industry to that in the US or in Europe, we are light years behind.

What is your best and worst management decision?

My best decision was to work with my son, Peter de Kretser (COO and founder, GO Communications). It combines the advantages of the ‘old bull’ paired with the ‘young bear’. In a fast-changing world, experience combined with ‘no fear’, even in gloomy economic times, inspire and motivate colleagues who, in turn, inspire clients. As for my worst... I’d have to say being tone deaf, and being unable to sing a note in the karaoke lounge with colleagues and clients, and being too good at golf. Don’t laugh! I once lost a client because I did too well on the course, and my excuse of ‘being lucky’ still lost me the deal. A lot of deals are closed in the karaoke lounges and on the golf course. I’d say 80% of management occurs in the real world, not in the board room. I’ve heard that the first Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, made all his Members of Parliament learn to play golf — it’s just practical.

You were recently the first PR professional from Malaysia to be inducted into the International Who’s Who. How did it happen?

I presume Who’s Who decided it was about time we had someone from Malaysia! The plaque says it was awarded to me ‘for contribution to the communication industry’. I believe the induction was a response to the growing influence today of Asia and the PR industry. Personally, I credit luck and creative passion which enabled me to produce some classic worldwide PR campaigns, like getting the Singapore Girl into Madam Tussauds in London. She is the first, and only, commercial figure they have to date — in all 200 years of history. I believe Who’s Who got wind of me from the books and articles written on campaigns such as these that mention me.

You’re also writing a book, Long Legs and Lemonade. What is it about and where did the idea come from?

For some time, publishers have wanted me to write a textbook on PR. That is just not my style. But it gave me the thought that it would be a lot of fun to write about the communication industry as it has become more and more important in Malaysia through stories. I’m still writing it. It should be out sometime middle of the year.

If you had to do it again, would you do it differently?

Funnily, I am doing it again. I started and built a PR network [MDK Consultants] 25 years ago, and now, with Peter we are building GO Comm. This time, we’re doing it our way, not someone else’s way with directions from London or New York headquarters, only concerned about the bottom line.

If you weren’t doing this job, what would you be doing?

Having been born in Sri Lanka, I’d probably have been a tea planter. No, I’m serious. I grew up with it, I think it’s a fabulously romantic idea. Helping provide the world with a cup of tea every morning would have been delicious. If my parents hadn’t migrated, and all that trouble hadn’t started there, that’s what I would have been. Alternatively, I could have been Peter’s manager as he became the next David Beckham. He was the youngest footballer ever to be selected to play for Australia. Unfortunately he tore a crucial ligament in his knee. Having his name on an Air Asia plane would have been a dream come true.

What impact on the PR industry do you hope to leave behind?

I will hopefully be able to help make the profession respectable, getting it its due recognition as a service industry. I also want to enable and help nurture great talent within the industry.

What have you achieved so far?

Slowly but surely, I believe I have shown PR to be a powerful marketing tool, and more than just party hats and whistles.

This article appeared in the Feb 23, 2009 issue of Manager@Work, the monthly management pullout of The Edge.

Confessions of a CEO