Telum Talks To: Zsofia Balatoni from Rothman & Roman

Telum Talks To: Zsofia Balatoni from Rothman & Roman

Zsofia Balatoni is the Chief Strategy Officer at Rothman & Roman, an independent, international strategic communications company. Zsofia spoke with Telum Media about navigating environmental, social, and governance (ESG) stories as well as the unique Southeast Asia communications landscape.

You expanded Rothman & Roman into Singapore four years ago. What inspired this move into the Southeast Asian market?
For us, it was quite a natural next step. We launched our first agency in 2007 and gradually expanded our activities geographically. To date, we have run PR campaigns in over 30 countries and won hundreds of awards across Europe, North America and Asia over the past 16 years.

This includes our recent success at the 2023 IPRS PRISM Awards in Singapore, where we clinched the 'Outstanding Campaign by a NGO or NPO - MERIT' award. Together with the visionary guidance of our esteemed client, UNDP in Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei Darussalam, and fantastic camaraderie with our partner agency, NovaFusion, we worked closely on a campaign that promotes responsible business practices across Asia.

Without a doubt, the world is looking at Southeast Asia today, and I can say that this is the most exciting market for any business these days, with Singapore being at the heart of it. Singapore is our new home now, and we love it here!

What do you consider to be your agency's strengths in this market?
Our key market focus has historically been Europe. From early on, we realised our strength lies in ESG and cross-cultural communications, and we have been blessed with purpose-driven, forward-looking multinational corporation clients to work with on campaigns. We witnessed the evolution of ESG communication in Europe, where ESG standards and requirements are high, and were able to become fluent in all aspects of it.

The burning question coming from many communications directors today is how to talk about ESG. 'Greenwashing' and 'greenhushing' are equally dangerous strategies with research showing many companies struggle to create an ESG narrative relevant to the media, or even their own employees. We believe a human-centred approach is the solution which allows participation, tackles core business-related issues and creates a real impact.

Based on the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer, about 80 per cent of Singaporeans reportedly want their CEOs to act on societal issues in general and in the office, such as discrimination. Employees, through their informal networks, are the most important ambassadors and C-suite members of organisations must engage in meaningful discussions with them. There are a lot of tools to achieve this, from gamification to training and experimental activities. Equally, once organisations make a commitment, it is important not to forget engagement with the media as well.

In the past year, our clients have been featured in all key local and regional media outlets. We help our clients to tell their sustainability stories in-house and externally in an impactful way. I am extremely happy to see that this topic resonates with local companies. For example, most, if not all, of our ESG communication workshops run with full-house attendance.

As a proud sponsor of the EuroCham Sustainability Awards’ ESG Communication category for the second year running, we are glad to see so many companies excel in ESG, though there is certainly a lot of opportunity in this area. As an agency, we will continue to be strong advocates of ESG communication wherever and whenever we can!

What communications trends or dynamics have you observed that are unique to Southeast Asia compared with Europe?
We often forget that companies do not operate in a vacuum, they are part of a national culture. As a multicultural society, Singapore is a good example of social sustainability since its conception 58 years ago. This bolsters the local ESG communication scene, as social affinity is a true blue attitude amongst the population.

As a frequent volunteer in Singapore (specifically Ang Mo Kio, a residential town situated in the North-East), I am always in awe of how naturally the concept of helping those in need comes to most Singaporeans I meet. It is certainly something that companies can build upon, but like everywhere else, the standards are high in the media when it comes to reporting on ESG. It is a challenge to create meaningful and impactful programmes that the media will be willing to report on.

Managers within an organisation's communication, human resources and sustainability departments must encourage synergy by brainstorming new ways to create impactful programmes that showcase a true commitment to ESG. These programmes must also hold the potential to grasp the imagination of the organisation's employees, as well as the wider public and media. It is not enough to send out a press release and expect the media to publish everything that is important to a company. We have to “package” it in a way that is newsworthy and relevant. This requires combined strategic efforts from agencies and clients.

As a Mentor to emerging practitioners in the communications field, what is the most important piece of advice you would offer?
Local talent is immense, and I truly enjoy working with people, either within our company or as a Mentor in the NUS Master of Communication programme. My single most important piece of advice is to read. Read the media and good literature too! It is impossible to become an excellent PR professional without a deep knowledge of the local and international media, an understanding of what stories are being published and who the key players are in the media (from editors to journalists), and an appreciation of what constitutes an outstanding piece of journalism.

Today, ChatGPT and AI can increase the productivity of agencies. I welcome the technological disruption it brings to the industry as I am hopeful that AI will allow us to spend more time on advisory than execution. However, in order to be able to do outstanding advisory work, PR practitioners must have a solid world view and understand the media intimately.

I am also an advocate of literature, due to the fact that we work with human beings. There is no better way to understand the human psyche than through major literary works. Fortunately, there is an abundance of both Western and Eastern literature available in Singapore. One of my favourite Sunday afternoon activities is a trip to Kinokuniya (a large Japanese bookstore chain) with my youngest daughter. I never cease to marvel at the vastness of their stock. We almost always find something new and exciting there and will easily spend at least an hour exploring!

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