For the past 40 years, home for Hong Kong native Pauline Leung has been Taiwan, where she has forged a path for herself in the high-paced world of public relations. After working for almost a decade as PR manager for Hilton International Taipei, Leung set up Compass PR, one of Taiwan’s foremost homegrown PR firms, serving a broad swath of international clients. She has served as chairman of Compass for over 30 years, and was also a longtime co-chair of AmCham Taipei’s Travel & Tourism Committee.
Pauline sat down with Taiwan Business TOPICS Deputy Editor Jeremy Olivier in June to discuss her career trajectory, her hands-off management style, and her thoughts on whether Taiwan tourism can rebound once the COVID-19 pandemic has eased.
How did you become interested in public relations? What about the profession attracted you to it?
Before coming to Taiwan, I worked briefly for a British travel agency in Hong Kong, as well as for Cathay Pacific. When I came here with my husband in 1980, I was given the opportunity to join Hilton International Taipei as a PR manager. At that time, PR was not a big industry in Taiwan – there was only one international firm, I believe – and I did not have a full understanding of what kind of work it entailed. However, the company said they needed someone with an international perspective, so I just went for it and was hired, no questions asked.
Since Hilton is an international hotel brand, they had very a well-organized training process for their PR departments worldwide, including a thick manual on how to handle all aspects of the job, such as writing press releases. I also researched and read many books on public relations. You could say my expertise was developed by a mix of company training and self-training.
While working for Hilton, I learned about building credibility and developing a good reputation, so that people trust your company’s brand. To do this, I kept up communication and worked with all of our different stakeholders, including communities, government, universities, and local media. I was there for nine years, until I decided it was time for me to move on and start my own company.
From your experience, what are your observations on Taiwan’s travel and tourism market?
When I first came to Taiwan, its outbound tourism market was just starting to open up. I was shocked to see that the products available were very cheap, and there was very tough competition between local travel agencies to offer less expensive packages. Also, people traveled almost exclusively in group tours to avoid issues with the language barrier.
Things have changed since then. The average Taiwanese traveler is a bit more sophisticated, his level of English has improved, and he is more likely to engage in solo travel. Products offered by travel agencies have gotten better, and there is a sizeable, well-educated boomer population that still prefers group tours. The main issue now is making sure that tour operators have in-depth knowledge of the local language, history, and culture of each place.
In terms of inbound tourism, Taiwan relies mainly on tourists from surrounding Asian countries. It still needs to improve in its long-haul markets. Since travelers from faraway destinations like the U.S. and Europe tend to visit more than one country when they come to Asia, Taiwan would do well to coordinate with its neighbors to work out an itinerary that fits the traveler’s purpose. For example, having a single airline offer flights to several destinations in Asia, as well as return flights to the traveler’s home country from any of those destinations.
What were the main lessons that you learned from establishing a PR company in Taiwan?
When I founded Compass PR with a few friends in the late ‘80s, I had to learn about how to generate clients, how to make business pitches. We started small, and as I became more familiar with the type of work you do in a PR firm, we began pulling in bigger clients, such as the Bank of Montreal and Northwest Airlines – companies that were looking for a Taiwan PR firm that understood the needs of a multinational operation.
The big change came in 1991, when we were sought out by Formosa Plastics, who was planning to build its sixth naphtha cracker, but were being refused by the local counties, who were worried about the pollution it would create. So, we helped them with the communications plan, working to change the attitudes of major stakeholders to the project. This is the purpose of PR. You need to display sincerity, but more importantly, you need to be honest with everyone involved. If you’re not, people will see that, and you may have to deal with negative results.
One of the very basic components of our work – something which I believe many companies don’t think is important – is monitoring the news on a daily basis. If even one customer makes a small complaint, a PR company that’s been following the general trends can help the client keep that small flame from turning into a big forest fire.
Do you have a particular style as a manager? What do you see as your main strengths? Any weaknesses?
I think of myself as a very liberal leader. I believe that all roads lead to Rome, that there isn’t just one right way of doing things, as long as your road doesn’t include a big detour. I can share my views and experience, but PR is also very much about personal creativity, something that I don’t want to limit in my staff. I encourage brainstorming for this very reason; sometimes even small suggestions by inexperienced staff may lead to a very good idea.
In terms of weaknesses, I tend not to be very aggressive. I don’t put in the extremely long hours that are common in the PR business. I like my leisure time. Similarly, I don’t require that kind of overwork from my employees, either; there’s no point in making huge profits if it means sacrificing your staff. If you’re not aggressive in this sense, it means that you can only expand the business so much. But I am happy to keep our company the size it is now and give a handful of good clients our full attention. We go for quality over quantity.
Do you think Taiwan’s tourism industry will be able to make a comeback once the COVID-19 pandemic has ended?
Actually, whether or not Taiwan tourism can make a comeback depends more on other countries. If we are doing well, but other countries are not, we are not going to see the tourist numbers from those countries come back up. We do have a chance, though, for some recovery with the Rotary International Convention that will take place next June. We are expecting some 45,000 registrants from 150 countries – the biggest turnout we will have ever had in Taiwan for one event. So, I’m hoping that will help.
Does Taiwan brand itself well as an attractive destination for international travel? What are some things Taiwan can do post-pandemic to boost its image as a hub of tourism in Asia?
I think Taiwan needs to do a better job of facing its history when it comes to promoting itself as a tourist destination. It has a long history of occupation and colonization by different countries, but tends to focus mostly on the Japanese period. Many visitors therefore are not aware of the Dutch and Spanish influences on Taiwan. Highlighting this history could do more to boost Taiwan’s image as a meeting ground of all of these different cultures.
As a PR professional, when I promote tourism for a certain place, I like to tell its stories – to really draw attention to the history and culture of a place. Another one of our big clients is the Macau Tourism Office, who came to us in 1992 and have been a loyal client ever since. Back then, Macau didn’t even have an airport, and few people were aware of it as an attractive destination.
However, Macau has this wonderful history and was very important as the first gateway into China when the Portuguese began landing there in the 16th century. So, it has all of these old-world characteristics melded with Chinese influences. There is a lot to do and see in Macau in that regard, and we’ve done our best to show that to Taiwanese travelers.
So, back to Taiwan: I think you need to craft an image of Taiwan as a very modern country with a very solid, interesting past. One thing that Taiwan can do better in this sense is to repurpose some of its old buildings as museums, which can give tourists a more well-rounded idea of Taiwan’s unique history.
How do you like to spend your leisure time? What do you find is the best way to get “recharged?”
I’ve been in Taiwan for the past 40 years, and for 30 of those years, I’ve taken part in a women’s choral group. We meet every Wednesday night, and every year we perform at the National Concert Hall in Taipei. Singing in this group takes away a lot of my stress from work.