Ray Schuster, Founder, The Hoffman Agency Singapore

I had barely unpacked in Singapore in 1996 when I heard from our client HP. The company was hosting a major customer/media conference in a luxury resort on Phuket Island, Thailand, and my presence as media contact was requested. Hoffman Asia Pacific was barely hatched at that point, but that’s why we were there. Let’s go to Phuket … like I even knew where it was. (Serious side note: Phuket was one of the Thai provinces hit hard by the 2004 tsunami.)

They arranged my flight and hotel reservation, and even though I came close to missing a connecting flight to Phuket out of a small Thailand city (sitting in a waiting room wondering what happened to everyone), I was off to Phuket. I checked into a luxury resort hotel surrounding a picture-perfect lagoon.

Phuket Lagoon

The event drew a good Southeast Asia media crowd due to HP’s big name, and it didn’t hurt that the company had footed the bill for press attendance. Nothing untoward about that, just the custom at the time. I ushered the media around to press events, lined up interviews with client execs, and handled other basic PR duties. And once I learned not to drink the tap water from the luxury room, I even had a good time. I became acquainted with the cutest damned baby elephants gracing the property.

Then I was handed a special assignment: Take this bundle of tickets and invite the media to a show. I did and most of them accepted. It was at a theater in Patong Beach, and promised to be a nice evening, with drinks optional afterward. With six media folks in tow, off we went in the hotel limo.

The performance was a bit reminiscent of the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall. Good fun watching attractive young women leap and twirl to popular U.S. music. It did get a little long and my interest flagged toward the end.

A casual observation by one of the guests after the show put the popularity of the act in perspective: Those attractive young women were not, alas, young women. As a world traveler and sophisticated PR professional, of course I knew about cabaret shows like that.

Time to go back and feed the baby elephants.

Baby Elephant Phuket

Returning to Singapore after the Phuket event, public relations settled down to more routine activities. The fact that Hoffman, an independent, Silicon Valley-based agency, chose to open its Asia Pacific operation in Singapore gave us early recognition and credibility. The U.S. practices Hoffman AP brought to the market were pretty straightforward, but not necessarily that common at the time there.

What seemed to be routine press relations and communications activities resonated with the local business and trade media. That was 20 years ago, and a transition was underway in Singapore from specializing in low-cost, quality manufacturing to supporting tech company startups, satellite marketing and R&D operations for U.S. and European firms, and other new directions.

Blocking and tackling PR basics still dominated the practice. Have a press announcement? Call them up, fax them, send them a news release. All worked almost effortlessly. Calling a press conference? “We’ll be there.”

When we made new-business pitches, the potential clients’ expectations were centered on the traditional measurements of PR: How much ink, airtime, etc., can you get for us? What about the strategic, creative, out-of-the-box communication ideas that we were ready to bring to the party? “Umm, maybe later.”

PR 101 was still the norm. Social media wasn’t even pie in the sky. The Internet and email, yes, but just taking off. My staff bugged me to get a cellphone. Why would I need one of those, aside from their being trendy? Because we’re a high-tech agency, that’s why.

OK, I get it. Take me to your cellphone store.

But change was brewing after only several months of our Singapore start. Strategic PR was beginning to creep into conversations. At the same time, some large, multi-national PR firms began to catch on, and their startup offices began to spring up around town.

You could say that our pioneering venture in Singapore and other Asia Pacific markets caught the attention of the international bigs. Thank you … our pleasure.

But we had a head start.