What does a public relations agency do? How do they differ from other agencies?

In this interview, we chatted with Terng Shing Chen from SYNC PR, a public relations agency based out of Singapore, with clients from a few countries – including Malaysia and Indonesia.

We discussed content marketing, SEO, measuring marketing success, and how businesses can leverage content marketing to acquire clients.  

One of the key takeaways from this interview is that Terng strongly believes podcasts will be the next big content format in Asia. There is a niche that podcasts fill – divided attention.

This is a key opportunity if you are already doing content marketing and looking for another distribution channel that is currently heavily under-tapped in Asia.

Prefer to read? Transcript and useful links below:

Thank you Terng for joining us on Daily CMO. Tell me about yourself!

I'm the founder and CEO of Sync PR. So we are a content marketing PR agency based in Singapore and Malaysia, Indonesia, and then we got a small team in India. We cover Southeast Asia primarily. We help primarily startups. But we also work with bigger companies and government agencies and stuff. But start-ups and SMEs especially, those are going to grow really quickly, are kind of our bread and butter.

What does a PR agency do? What's the difference between a PR and media agency?

So I'll say one thing right off the bat is that PR agencies are not all about media relations. And like talking to media press releases. That's a big part of what we do, but that's not even close.

Primarily our goal is to help our customers achieve their business outcomes, whatever that might be. And we use media and online platforms and channels like that, kind of as the main driver for success for our clients.

So it's something as simple, as basic as – I've got a client that is looking to launch a new product in the market. Or they had a brand new partnership with another big company. How do they make sure that their potential customers, their potential partners know – is that they use a PR agency to send out something like a press release, secure interviews for them so that they can talk about it immediately, and immediately spread it out to the bottom line.

How long do you take to understand your client's business before coming out with press releases and those marketing assets?

I wouldn't say that we get to choose all our customers, but we make sure that we get the right type of customers. We do a lot of KYC (Know Your Client) and we do a lot of research on the industry because sometimes we don't know what's going on internally within the company. But we understand the industry enough so that when they talk to us about their company, it's kind of easy for us to fill in the blanks.

A lot of what my team does and a lot of what I do is heavily based on research. It's actually asking the client the right questions. If someone is working with me. So say they are a vendor, so they're trying to sell me something or I'm paying them money to do something and they're asking me all the wrong questions. I mean, it's very easy to sense that frustration.

So what we try to do is we try and ask the right questions. Because while we don't know – we can do enough research to at least know what type of questions we should ask. And then that allows us to actually kind of understand more about the client, understand more about the customer, what they're trying to achieve faster, and with more clarity, rather than if you were to just go like really generic, hey, describe what you do, tell us your USPs. Those are kind of very standard questions that don't make any sense.

Is there a reason why you only help funded startups?

Where we see the most potential would be companies that are in growth phase. That usually means there's some form of funding or there are a couple of years in – maybe three years in.

So they've built revenue, their cash flow is pretty decent, so they have money to invest in growth. It's not because it's money that's going to come to us, but it's also at that point, usually, they're thinking how do we scale up by multiple?

So we need that type of mindset because when we're working with customers that don't have that mindset, what usually happens is they're focusing on different things. I wouldn't say wrong things, they're focusing on different things.

It makes our job slightly harder. It's not easy to measure that value. But with growth, it's really easy to measure that value. I'm making more money, I'm getting more customers. Value is already right there. It's really straightforward. So we look for that. But then we also have like, for example, a segment of customers that are very small in the sense that they kind of just started, they're not funded, less than a year in. I'm like, listen, what we can actually do is we can't do the same thing that we're going to do for company X that's paying us five times more. But what we can do is we can do something really simple for you that will help you, it will get you from here to here. It won't cost you a lot of money and you can afford to pay that little bit of money to do it. And it's not that difficult for us to do it. So it's still profitable, but we try and make sure that it's value-driven for both sides. That's been the hardest thing for us to build.

So I hesitate to use the shortcuts because I think that is a negative connotation, but we find ways to automate as much of the process or to reduce the amount of effort required in the process –  so that we can still do something. It's still valuable, and that's still a good outcome. But, you know, I don't need six consultants working on that continuously.

There's no direct way to measure or track the success of the work you do. How do you measure success and KPIs with PR & content work?

So this is a big conversation we're having within the PR industry. By conversation I mean it's mostly a fight that everyone has. Because the traditional way of doing it is, hey, let's count the number of articles that we generate. Let's look at really complicated measurements and KPIs and metrics.

I keep on forgetting the names of a lot of these, but they were literally mathematical formulas used in order to measure the success of a campaign, based on arbitrary figures around the impact of the value of certain types of coverage.

One of the most common methods they use is going out of favor now, but they still use it in PR value and ad value. So they take the advertising value of, say, an article or newspaper clipping and then they multiply that by the PR multiplier three, five, seven. I've seen nine before, but that's not that common. It's three five seven. And then that becomes your PR value. So you can generate a million, say 5 million Ringgit PR value because you generated X amount of articles that were equal to that. What I found is that has zero correlation to actual business success.

So what we do is we try and understand what the clients want. I would say 90% of our clients want something very straightforward which is can you get me more business? Can you get me more customers? And a lot of them say, can I increase my revenue?

So the only thing I have an issue with that is revenue because I don't control the sales and I don't control the ticket size of what you're selling the customer. Right? But what if we can go, let's take one step up, and can we relatively control that, which is, say, inbound lead generation.

Inbound lead generation is like a salesperson's dream, right? It's the best because they have nothing, then their potential customers come to them. So our job is how do we improve that? And for some businesses, it's simple as can you drive more relevant traffic to our website? Possible PR can do that for sure. Then also some more B2B businesses, can you have more potential customers emailing us or give us a call or send us a message? It's very doable. We definitely can do that. We kind of put our money where our mouth is because we changed our sales model based on the work that we do.

So we used to have a very outbound sales model. We send emails, and calls to get potential customers. What happened more recently, and I think in the last year and a half to two years, is we are almost completely inbound generated.

So it's through SEO, it's through our content, it's through any PR that we do for ourselves. 90% of new business is driven through inbound. And it's been very successful for us in reducing the amount of work required from our part because it was super difficult having to do sales across, like three, four markets outbound and have it localized for different markets. You have to do research across the Malaysian market, Singapore market, India market and they are completely different from each other.  

So your sales team handling all those, you kind of have to localize them a little bit. They have to be completely separated from each other. I'm not saying that you shouldn't do that. Eventually what we'll do is we'll bring back outbound sales when we're bigger and then we'll do inbound and outbound. So it will be kind of the same thing, and we'll just be able to scale up at the same level.

So that's kind of the goal later on. But for me, and I'll say this purely for me, inbound and website traffic is kind of the best way to measure success for your PR campaign.

How long did it take you to see results from inbound marketing?

Realistically, it took two years, but that was also because we weren't really focused. We worked with customers where we helped build – maybe not the inbound funnel that much, but we really worked on their PR and then we worked on their content. How can you set the infrastructure of kind of the base level for your inbound marketing?

They see results within a t few months, like two to three months usually. But that's also because they have the infrastructure there. They have a brand presence, and then it's a lot easier.

For us, we didn't pay any attention to it. And we started from zero four years ago. So it just took us time to get there. And I was like, I can't afford to wait 6-7 months before something comes in. I'm going to do it outbound as hell. And whenever I have five minutes, I'm going to try and do content – get on LinkedIn, try and work on an SEO and all that stuff. So right now, SEO is our primary driver for inbound. Then it's PR and then it's like social media.

And some people say SEO is dying.

Definitely not. I have no idea where they came from. The people who are saying SEO is dying, are the ones putting their videos online, on TikTok, on YouTube, and stuff like that. And how do people find you? It's literally they're searching for stuff.

TikTok is the only one where the feed is shoving it in your face. But for the most part, people search more on TikTok than they did on Google for, I think for like one month. TikTok kind of beat Google in terms of numbers.

Search is just changing. It's not dying.

SEO, in fact, if you ask me, becoming a little bit more exciting than it used to. I mean, it was just how much content can you create. How many words can you pump out? Like, here's a really simple methodology for creating content – it reads horribly, but it drives traffic. What's happening now with SEO is they're getting smarter. The search engines are getting smarter. TikTok is kind of shifting all of that. Nobody understands the TikTok algorithm that well. I don't, I'll fact out say that. I don't understand TikTok algorithm that well.

Google is now also getting smarter. Their NLP, natural language processing is getting better. So they're able to actually understand nuance. When you do a lot of things, keywords are now how you phrase keywords also changing. It's getting a bit more exciting. I think that's a good thing. I think it's just going to remove all the people who are not, I would say those that don't really have any skills. All they're doing is just pumping out content, content and not really trying to create value. Those people are gradually going to start losing a little bit of their traffic.

And the people who are focused on value and creating great content and stuff like that will start to rise up again. Which, I mean, hopefully, we can all agree that that kind of took a back seat for the last few years, the content value has been lower.

What is your take on AI tools and AI writing softwares?

I used to be massively against it about two or three years ago because I was a very early adopter. I also needed to see if I should be changing my career. Honestly, I was just really worried I was going to lose my job, right? So I was like, okay, we better check this out.

I wouldn't say it was useless, but it was very bad. What has happened in at least in the last year and more recently, is there are some amazing tools that are free, or I would say very affordable. They do really good work.

One tool that we use a lot is Quillbot. It's a rephrasing tool. It doesn't create content, it rephrases content. So sometimes I'll write something that looks, like I'm reading and thinking, yeah, this is right. But it's fresh, it's rubbish, right? I'm trying to send an email out. I'm trying to write a LinkedIn post. I'm trying to write a blog about something that makes sense, and it's terrible. So I'll take that chunk of text and I'll rephrase it. I'll look for fluency, I'll look for, OK, let's expand it, let's condense it because it's too long.

Quillbot helps content writers paraphrase their writing.

And then Quillbot just does all of this and it's for free. There's a better limit to it, obviously, because it's free. You can pay and get more of the limits, but you just want to try it out. It's completely free. It does a great job. I will look at it, say, okay, this has saved me 50% of my time. I can now go and just tweak it, add a little bit of nuance, add something a little fun in there, and then I'm done. I'm a big fan of that too.

There are other tools that I've tried, like Ink Editor, Copy AI. A bit of ways to go. But the progression from what I saw two years ago to now, I'm like, okay, it's coming. Like, it's actually coming. Two years ago, I was like, they'll never take my job. Now I'm like, okay, it's definitely coming.

How is media changing?

I think we're at the tail end of the first change, which was everyone is going digital. We've been seeing that for a long time. Like, there were a lot of hold-ups in Malaysia, a lot of the publications, quite a few of you guys that were like, print-only or newspapers, like Utusan and all – kind of, took a bit of a hit.

Now Utusan is back digitally. They kind of missed the boat, I think, in certain markets. So Malaysia is one, Thailand is another one. They kind of stuck too much to a traditional form of media, and they weren't aware that consumers are getting younger. All the consumers are starting to realize that this Internet thing is really useful. And people were also absorbing content in different ways. We're entering a new phase where people are going to start realizing that how we write content is also different.

When we do interviews, when we do stories, versus trying to just pump out a lot of content, people are going, hopefully , this is my view, hopefully people are going to start looking at how do we generate value? And instead of focusing on the volume of people coming to my website, or volume of people reading, we start focusing on the value of the people. So are these people valuable? Are they converting something? What are the demographics? Will advertisers pay more – for 50,000 high-value readers or will they pay more for I don't know – a mix of like 250,000 people, but maybe 30% have no spending power or they are online bots or people from other countries that have no relevance to my content.

I think we're starting to see a bit of that now. And usually what I do is I look to the US first because they tend to drive the evolution of media first. And one thing that I'm pretty bullish on is the fact that podcasts are going to be the next big thing in Asia.

Podcast, I've been saying podcast, I'm saying for two years, fingers crossed and I'm right. I'm waiting for the I told you so moment. One day it'll come, one day, I'm sure. But your podcast, I really think that that's going to be a big thing.

In Malaysia, podcasts are relatively under-tapped. Do you think it'll be huge in Malaysia as well?

You and I having a conversation and I think in a weird way, people are starting to understand that podcasts fill a very important niche when it comes to how we absorb content.

I always get this term wrong, but it's basically just I describe it to them because I can't remember what it is. But I think it's called divided attention.

So if I'm ironing, if I'm doing like a small chore, if I'm doing admin work, I'm listening to something, there's a video playing in the background and I'm absorbing that content. I'm actually paying more attention to things in the background.

I listen to podcasts. For example, when I'm traveling, I'm in a car, like I said, doing ironing, I'm listening to a podcast. If I'm doing my claims or doing admin stuff like payroll, and I'm looking at everyone's numbers and stuff, listening to a podcast in the background.

And it could be a podcast, could be music, or could be something as simple as an audiobook. Podcasts fill that really valuable niche of divided attention. Because if it's a video, if it's news, if it's highlights of a basketball game – you got to pay attention to it and you got to carve out 30 minutes of your time, right?

Yeah, you could spend 3 hours listening to five or six episodes of podcasts and you never once look at your screen, you never once have to change anything.

I only listen to podcasts when I'm driving. Do you think more people are going to start listening to podcasts?

Yeah, we're already doing it. It's just that we haven't picked podcasts as a content channel – and again, it's the value of the podcast as well. The US has amazing podcasts, but there's no local relevance. I'd say that.  

In certain markets, I think Taiwan and China to some extent has a really strong podcast community, but it's really Chinese or really localized. So people in Malaysia, people in Singapore, people in Indonesia don't care.

Indonesia has a great podcast scene. It's very local and it's still relatively niched – but it's very good. It's comedy based, it's very lifestyle and aimed at consumers. But it's growing there, for sure.

So I think we're there. I think in the US, it has become more established. So you're seeing business podcasts, education podcasts, learning podcasts, that are driving 100,000 - 500,000 million listens a month. And we're talking about super niched topics like education issues in rural Midwestern US. Right? Like, who cares? Apparently 200 million people in the US care.

So we're in a weird space, I think, right now, where we're starting to see but it's also like, people are not 100% convinced. So that's why, for example, I started my own podcast at the beginning of the pandemic.

I've got nothing to do right now. Everything's shut down. My clients are panicking. I'm like, might as well just start a podcast with my friends. And so we did and it's been good. It's been really, really good for me. So that became like another channel on which we add value. We kind of grow and then we've gotten a couple of customers through the podcast. I never thought that would happen. I was just doing for fun, but it does.

What makes a podcast successful? Should I turn this video interview into a podcast or what would you do?

I would definitely turn it into a podcast because you already have it. So we do a video and audio podcast, right? So it's called business over drinks, where we drink and we interview people and stuff like that, right.

Terng's podcast – Business over Drinks

And it's done virtually and everything. So it's really not that difficult to do. But we also convert it into audio and video. Yeah, it really works. Right now, I would think that based on our info and what we've seen is the majority of the views and listens actually coming from YouTube and video platforms.

But the audio platform, it shouldn't be too difficult to extract the audio. And then actually just make it into set up like a Buzzsprout account or Anchor account. And then you got a podcast for free.

Maybe I should turn this interview into a podcast as well.

You definitely should. Do both, right? I have a very simple thing. If you have the content and you don't maximize it, I get really upset.

I can understand if it's going to take you 10 hours to turn it into a podcast, then yeah – you probably don't do it. But it'll take just 10 minutes, just rip it out and it's done, right? And it's great. We got 30 minutes of content that is going to be unique to you and it's going to have your name, it's going to branded. If ten people listen to it, that's good enough for now. Eventually, there will be 50, 500, 5,000 and more.

What's your best one, best marketing strategy that you can give me as an advice?

Okay. I'm not saying this only because I run a PR agency, but my best advice for you would be, if possible – to do some PR for yourself, even as a young startup.

I think startups get too focused on operations and building the tech – which is very important.

But maybe they should spend 10% of their time thinking – how do I market my startup? So do a little PR for yourself. Get your brand name out there.

You'll be amazed at doing one or two interviews ,if you get picked up on even a small technology publication or your local newspaper or a radio series. If you get one customer from that, your return on investment is insane because you spent nothing other than maybe taxi fare and like little gel for your hair. That was literally it. You did an interview, you got one customer, and you're already making a ton of money of that already, so just do that.

The return on investment on doing PR is insanely high and I think a lot of people don't. The reason is we can't measure it in the same way we can with digital marketing, so people don't see it that way.

But as a young startup, you can measure it so easily because you have no customers and now you have one. That's your return on investment.

Thanks again. How do people find you?

Go to the website. Go to my website, www.syncpr.co look me up on LinkedIn. Reuben will put my spelling on my name, but it's quite hard. No worries. Reuben, thanks so much for having me on and I appreciate you.

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