June marks Pride Month for many countries, and this year we’ve witnessed some organizations denouncing their Pride campaigns in the face of backlash, leaving us to question the authenticity of support.
Our latest episode of Cogcast features Associate Director Ian Lee, from our Singapore office, in conversation with Leow Yangfa, Executive Director of Oogachaga, Singapore's most established LGBTQ+ community organization working with individuals, couples & families since 1999. The two share their advice for corporates looking to support the LGBTQ+ community and the importance of building authentic corporate partnerships and allyships with NGOs and community groups.
Transcript for podcast
Larissa Padden 0:05 Hello, and welcome to Cogcast. Cognito's podcast where we talk to journalists and media pros on everything that's happening in the world in media and PR. I'm Larissa Padden. Your host this episode and a former journalist turned PR professional. Today, we have a special episode for Pride Month co hosted by our colleague incognito Singapore office, Ian Lee. Hi, Ian. Thanks for joining me today for this special episode of Cogcast. It's Pride Month around the world and you have a special guest coming up joining to discuss supporting the mental and physical health of the LGBT+ community in Singapore. But I quickly wanted to ask you a little bit about what corporate allyship and public support looks like in Singapore currently.
Ian Lee 0:47 Cool. Hey, Larissa, it's so nice to speak with you. Yeah. So you know, the idea of allyship always comes up around Pride Month, and by the way, Happy Pride. And you know, when whenever allyship comes up, the big question comes up is around authenticity and what does it really mean when a corporation wants to engage the community, you know, that we do live in a world that is, you know, hyper-informed and there's always a question of authentic, true engagement or whether, you know, different corporations engaging in various kinds of washing. You know, there's rainbow washing, there's greenwashing, there's all kinds of virtual signaling that are out there. And there's a natural level of skepticism that I think a lot of companies have to really work very hard to address it to overcome.
Larissa Padden 1:36 Yeah. We've had some examples here in recent months of companies speaking up and then handling it well, and then maybe handling it not so well, you know, but I wanted to ask, you mentioned greenwashing, does this fall under ESG? That's such a broad term that's encompassing everything now, and I haven't really in the US at least, heard those two things tied together this month yet.
Ian Lee 2:00 Yeah. You know, that's a really great point. You know, if we turn back the clock to say, you know, 10 years ago, this kind of allyship, or this kind of engagement of the community used to fall under CSR, but now we're seeing an evolution of the way that people are thinking about it, and the way people talk about it. And I would make the argument that this does fall under ESG, especially under the sustainable side of things, where it's really about looking at not just, okay, I'm going to do something for Pride Month and then we'll call it a day, but rather sort of really looking at your business models and asking yourself as a company, are we truly inclusive? Are we really looking at building out sustainable models that actually engage with the communities that we want to see, or customers, or the communities that we're in?
Larissa Padden 2:45 Yeah, I agree. I think that, you know, one element of ESG, that hasn't gotten as much publicity, but I think it's getting at least here in the US a little more attention is the social aspect, the 'S' and ESG. And one phrase that I've heard of when, you know, we look at these companies that I mentioned, that maybe haven't handled, their backlash that they've gotten for support, is, hopefully I get this correctly, it's practice, not perform. So it's really making this a core value, like you said, of your business practice. And so hopefully, we'll see that more as people start to figure out exactly what their message is and work it into their overall business practice. But along the same lines, when we're talking about sustainability, it's no longer an option to stand on the sidelines and not take a stand, at least here in the US, we're seeing that more and more. And in today's world where we're having more conversations than ever about representation. Is neutrality a myth? Meaning, are you eventually going to get backlash one way or the other so you might as well stand up for what you believe in?
Ian Lee 3:47 Yeah, absolutely. And I think the argument could even be made about Asian brands as well. You know, for the longest time when it comes to, especially during Pride Month, it is still a slightly complex and tricky topic to discuss, I'm sure it is actually anywhere in the world. And for the longest time, a lot of brands here chose to sort of stay silent in their approach, especially during this Pride season. And an increasingly, especially as we become much more globalized, as people around the world are able to see how other parts of the world are really reacting, the silence is starting to get very deafening and very loud. And so, I would say that even within Asia, you know, we look at other brands that are doing Pride Month or pride activations in other parts of the world. And then we look at the brands here, and we're like, hey, if they can do it, why, why aren't our local brands also getting involved standing up for what they believe in? And I think that that push is certainly becoming a lot stronger in Asia and other parts of the world. So you're right. I think the neutrality, I think there's a time and place in which an organization needs to say, look, this is what we stand for, we're gonna come up and actually talk about it. And I think you know, as companies start to do that, they also need to do it in a way that isn't performative. So, really, one of my favorite examples of a Pride campaign that really kind of backfired is Marks & Spencer in the UK. And a few years ago, as part of Pride Month, they came up with the LGBT sandwich, which was lettuce, guac, bacon, and tomato. And as you can imagine, you know, slapping a rainbow on the sandwich in the grocery store. Just I mean, you know what, great, thank you for giving me a sandwich because everybody loves sandwiches. But it really just comes across as very trivial and really performative.
Larissa Padden 5:38 Yeah, that's part of that perform, not practice. For me what comes to mind, and I don't know if it made its way to you, but the Bud Light campaign.
Ian Lee 5:47 Oh yeah, absolutely.
Larissa Padden 5:49 Yeah. This is a brand that had, you know, years and years of, you know, supporting the community, and then just really fumbled and went silent. And it was kind of disappointing to see. So I think that, you know, brands are still finding their voice and their way, I would like to see more of them kind of stick to the commitment once they make it, and things that be authentic, and, you know, not be performative and hopefully we'll see that more. But when we talk to our clients, and potential clients, and communicate how to, you know, deal with all of these issues, and how to be responsible in their branding, what are some of the things that they can bring to the table for these initiatives and what are the some of the things that we can counsel them to do?
Ian Lee 6:28 Yeah. So you know, as Communication Professionals, I think the, our biggest strength lies in the fact that we are not just you know, the amplifiers and the mouthpiece for a lot of brands, but we are also sort of the ears on the ground. We at least get a sense of what is the cultural zeitgeist. And so we, as comms people, we can bring this intelligence to the table and say; look, this is what we're seeing, not just in the media, but in the general society and culture. And these are the sensitivities and the subtleties that we need to pay attention to. Because again, a lot of big social movements or working communities, there's a lot of nuances that need to be understood. And if you don't understand these nuances, it's very, very easy to say the wrong thing, or to put your foot in the metaphorical mouth. And so, as Comms Professionals, we need to bring that understanding of nuancing to the table. And as well as the fact that, you know, we as comms people, we're very used to working across functions as well. And it's really about ensuring that there's consistency across all of the outreach in different forms as well.
Larissa Padden 7:33 Thank you again, for joining me today, Ian. Before you and I say goodbye, though. Can you tell us a little bit about your guest today?
Ian Lee 7:39 Sure. So you know, as you know, June is pride month for many countries and while it's heartening to see a lot of companies starting to support social causes, many still struggle with engaging communities in a way that's truly authentic. So our guest today is actually a gentleman called Leow Yeongfa. He's the Executive Director of Oogachaga. It's a community group that supporting the mental and physical health of the LGBTQ+ community here in Singapore. And recently, his organization partnered with Revolut, a digital banking app to launch a limited edition Diversity Card as part of their Pride Month outreach here in Singapore. So I'm going to have a conversation with him about, talking about how do we build authentic corporate partnerships with NGOs and other community groups.
Larissa Padden 8:24 Well, thanks, everyone. Enjoy.
Ian Lee 8:26 Hey, everyone, and welcome to another episode of Cogcast. My name is Ian Lee I’m an Associate Director here in the Singapore office. So June is pride month for many countries. And while it's heartening to see more companies supporting social causes, many still struggle with engaging communities in a way that's truly authentic. To dive a little deeper into building authentic corporate partnerships and allyships with NGOs and other community groups, we're speaking today with Leow Yangfa, Executive Director of Oogachaga, Singapore's most established LGBTQ+ community organization. Oogachaga recently partnered with Revolut a digital banking app to launch a limited edition diversity card as part of the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia campaign. Hey Yangfa, thanks for speaking today.
Leow Yangfa 9:10 Hi, Ian. Great to be here. Thanks a lot.
Ian Lee 9:12 Cool, so let's jump straight into it. You know, why is it important for corporate partners to create truly authentic partnerships, and not something that's performative when it comes to social causes?
Leow Yangfa 9:22 First of all Ian, I don't jump straight, I jump queer. But again, that's a great question. The idea of not just authenticity, but authentic partnerships is something that's so important not just for corporate partners, but also for community partners as well. As mentioned earlier, as a community organization, what we always look out for is a relationship, a corporate relationship is meaningful for us as well. And also I'm also thinking as a consumer, as a queer person. Many of us are very discerning. So we know what we see. We can sense whether it's genuine, whether it's authentic, or whether it's just a brand wanting to do what's good for them, rather than what's good for the community, what's good for the social cause. So for that reason, I think out of sheer respect for your community, for the social cause they want to highlight and champion, you do need to be really authentic about what you do and how you do it, and a big thing that you really, really have to bear in mind is that engagement, the very vocal, the very thoughtful and proactive engagement to reach out and work with a, whether it's a community group, or whether it's a community of individuals who, who have vested, lived experiences in the social causes and the communities they are trying to showcase and highlight.
Ian Lee 10:44 Yeah, that's a really good point. It's sort of using the example of the latest partnership that you have with Revolut. You know, is this the first time that Oogachaga is collaborating financial service business? And why do you think that this kind of campaign is really impactful?
Leow Yangfa 10:58 Yes, it's the first time we've engaged with the financial service business in such an open public way. Of course, over the years, we have worked with various Fintech as well as financial institutions and businesses, but very much in an internal way, for example, engaging with them on training services, or the in-house programs. But for the first time, with Revolut, in Singapore, they've decided to launch their diversity card, launch it in Singapore, and they sought us out, to their credit, they sought us out and they gave, we gave ourselves plenty of time, to have a thoughtful, purposeful discussion about how we want to do it, what would work, what wouldn't work and potential risks to look out for. And to the end, we're extremely, extremely grateful for this very fruitful collaboration and I want to take my hats off to the team behind that. And I mean, the office in Singapore is not big. But I think what they did and how they did, it was incredibly useful. They, they really wanted to do this in a way that was helpful for the community. So I could say a bit about how it's done. So through Revolut, the app, any Revolut user, with a donation of $10, to Oogachaga, will automatically be sent the rainbow Diversity Card at no charge. So this was as far as Bucha is concerned, win-win for us attracts donations from people who might not otherwise know about us and the organization that supports and LGBTQ community organization and again, from the Revolut perspective, they are bringing out a new product. And so win-win all around, and the response we've been getting from the community has been so generous and overwhelming. And as we speak, I've just got news that they will be extending it to the end of June, initially, it was just meant to be a two-trial promo.
Ian Lee 12:47 Oh, wow. That's fantastic. So, you know, I you touched on the point earlier that I think really resonated with me when you talk about authenticity. So you know, in your opinion, what makes an authentic partnership? How can corporate partners really go beyond what you know, what we call pink washing, and to develop an allyship with, you know, LGBTQ+ communities, or in fact, any other social, social causes and social groups, you know, especially in countries like Singapore?
Leow Yangfa 13:14 Yup, I can think of a couple of examples of how not to run a campaign. For example, when a campaign focuses solely on the product, or when the campaign only focuses on the model or celebrity promoting the product, then it's pretty obvious. It's about the product or the celebrity, nothing wrong with highlighting, showcasing products and celebrities. But if the intention is to highlight a cause, or a community or organization, then the focus shouldn't be on the product or the celebrity. So which also means that an authentic campaign and authentic partnership should involve the course should involve the community, the organizations that it's about and listen, listen to the people running or behind the organizations and social cause and hear from them, what would work, what would not work? Also, in particular, what will be risky, what will be potentially dangerous? There are of course, lots of international brands work across various jurisdictions, and then cities and countries and contexts, and it will vary from place to place as well. What might work say in Florida might not work in Singapore, what might work in Tokyo may or may not work in London. So I think that is another reason why work with local community partners is so essential.
Ian Lee 14:39 Right. So you know, if you were giving advice to a brand looking to engage with NGOs or community groups, what would you need to consider when planning out these kinds of partnerships?
Leow Yangfa 14:49 First of all, I mean, as a marketing team, or you might have some idea of what you want to what what you want your brand to signify to represent whether it's Pride Month or any other cause, that's great. But that's just the start - along the way, you might think about who and what and where and how you want to engage with the communities that you want to showcase and highlight. So in some places, in some parts of the world, there may be a diversity of community groups within a very diverse LGBTQ+ community, for example, you might have lots of choice when it comes to community partners, I imagine you want to kind of sit down and look through that list of community partners and see which single community partner or group or coalition partners might be most aligned with your brand. So do your homework, look up their social media footprint or media presence in terms of the language they use, the other campaigns that they are involved in, or maybe even look at the staff or the the messages that have been sent out over time and see whether that's aligned with your corporate brand, if there's alignment there, make the approach and have that discussion and see where it goes from there. So it does take time, you will not do this on the 31st of May in preparation for Pride Month, it's not gonna work. I think what really worked in our collaboration with Revolut was we started having this conversation much earlier in the year. And if I'm not wrong, the connection with the key staff in Revolut started years before it was kind of a working relationship we had and then when opportunity came around, we started talking and it took time. And again, we're so proud to share that this was a collaboration network.
Ian Lee 16:33 Yep, you brought up this point about having conversations with community groups. And you know, in my experience, I think that's something that people sometimes tend to overlook and forget about and they think; okay, I'm just going to speak to a community group, I'm just going to lay out the plans, and we're just gonna run with it. But rather, it needs to be a truly collaborative effort, right?
Leow Yangfa 16:53 It needs to be - Definitely. The collaboration will needs to happen. So it's very much process oriented, the connection needs to be a genuine one, we talked about authentic partnership, it was about a genuine connection. And also, whether it's a corporate partner, or the community partner, both sides must want to do this, if at any point, one party, or both realize that it's not going to work, I think we owe it to each other to kind of go, I'm sorry, it's not going to work. Or, you know, let's postpone this, let's do this another time, or do it another way, so that I can and I speak from the community perspective, the owners also is on the community partner to kind of be very honest about your resources, can you do this? Will you have resources to do this? The commitment to do it, even leadership, clearance and approval to do this, you know, so all this needs to be thought through as well.
Ian Lee 17:45 Right, you know, and I think we've missed out one more see 'C' here, which I think is very important, which is actually consistency from the company as well, in terms of are these things the same message not just during Pride Month and Pride season, but also on a year-long basis and consistency in terms of the sort of internal communications and corporate culture itself, because it's one thing to you know, put out a rainbow product or service during Pride Month, but then the rest of the year, you don't have your HR policies in line with that.
Leow Yangfa 18:13 Absolutely. Because one of the things I sometimes like to do is I can try to spot the brands that turned their logos, Rainbow from 1st to 30th of June, and then come 1st July switches back to a regular logo, that's fine. But at the back of my mind, I'm sort of thinking, what else are they doing for the LGBTQ+ staff, stakeholders, employees, consumers, you know, because when you think about it, we are not just queer in June, we are queer from first July all the way to 31st May as well the other 11 months of the year.
Ian Lee 18:49 Oh really? You're on the full-time? Because I'm on a part-time basis.
Leow Yangfa 18:52 Are you? Okay. Yeah. My day job is my gay job. So I can't run away from it.
Ian Lee 18:56 Okay, cool. So, okay, so coming back to the, you know, your work with revolute. You know, there's one form in which a company can sort of partner with a community group, but what are the strategies and programs can companies adopt to help sort of build inclusive corporate allyship with NGO partners?
Leow Yangfa 19:16 Again, from the start, again, I'm a big fan of doing things small or starting things small. If what you want to do is just to have a session to talk about awareness or sharing information, maybe something even as so-called basic as LGBTQ+ terminology, what I call kind of a finally, the rainbow alphabet soup. Start there because all of us whether the community or corporate settings, certainly in any professional setting language is so important. So getting that right, so start from there. You might want to go in and talk about pronouns. So you want to, we've even worked with some businesses where the HR policies are still written a default male pronoun, you know in this day and age, it might still happen, I don't know, maybe even start small look at what you have at the moment before you kind of leapfrog into bigger things that are probably just as important. But you also want to build confidence in your own internal team as well to make these small changes. And also you want to get buy-in from your stakeholders from your senior leadership from your staff team as well. So start internally, look internally don't always rush into doing grand, big things. Because in this day and age, queer consumers, activists, community groups, we are pretty discerning, we can sniff out inauthenticity if it's there, you might have the most gorgeous rainbow logo on your social media accounts. But all you need is for one person can go hang on, they don't have this or they don't have that within their staff employee policies, then I'm sorry, you're busted. So that's also about authenticity. What are you doing internally? Is that consistent because you have to see is this consistent with their public image public statements.
Ian Lee 21:03 Right, you touched on something that I thought was really quite interesting in that, you know, there is the, you know, the especially the queer community, in fact, the general public is a lot more aware and sensitive when they sort of smell inauthentic or inauthenticity. And I think that's actually changed over the years as well. I mean, I can remember 10, 15 years ago, when, you know, we started working in the social, in the space, and, you know, having a company change their logo to like a rainbow thing was a big deal. But that's no longer the case anymore. And in fact, you know, and rightfully so that it is not enough just to show a visual or a branding change, there really needs to be something that goes beyond that in terms of authenticity.
Leow Yangfa 21:47 Oh yes, absolutely. And I put this down to, maybe it's also a function of our use of technology and social media, we get it, right. Social media is very visual. People are sending messages, text or images. That's great. But many of us also kind of think, what else?
Ian Lee 22:05 Yeah
Leow Yangfa 22:05 What's beneath that rainbow, what's we need that statement? And what else are you doing? What else? What else? And of course, there's also tons of competition out there. We know what can be done. We know what truly LGBTQ+ inclusive and diverse and equitable companies look like and smell light and sound like, so if you're not doing that, then we can tell.
Ian Lee 22:26 Yeah, definitely. And when it comes to, you know, looking at the differences between, say, you know, we're both based here in Singapore, is do you think that there is a sort of differing standards when it comes to, or different ways of working with community groups that, you know, based here in Singapore and Asia, as compared to places like, you know, Europe or the Americas?
Leow Yangfa 22:47 Definitely, and, um, I would say, the context were very different. And to be fair, even in Asia, I mean, what, what you could get away with in, say, Taiwan may be different from what you can get away with in Malaysia, or Singapore, in the wider APEC region we could do in Sydney may be different from what I can do in Jakarta or Beijing or Shanghai. So I think, and that links us back to the earlier point. So I work with your local community partners and groups, hear from them, people who have lived and operated in this space, not just for years, but maybe for decades. So they can tell you what has changed, what hasn't changed, what can be done, what can't be done. And again, one way to not do an authentic partnership, or one way to do inauthentic partnership will be to just listen to head office in London or New York or even Sydney and just replicate and do it wherever I mean that very well intended, I'm sure, but that runs the risk of kind of, yeah, being out of touch with the local context and local needs as well. And having said that, there's a very real risk of putting the local community in danger, if you end up doing something that can be easily misunderstood and misinterpreted as so called foreign interference.
Ian Lee 24:00 Yeah, yeah, you're right. And just in terms of tone check, I think something else that I always found was very important was whenever you know, a company or brand was planning out their pride campaign or any kind of community outreach, I thought it was also a very important that on the other side, there should be someone from ideally, someone from the community as part of the planning group from the company itself. So you know, it'd be quite funny if you have a brand that's coming to you and there's no one who is queer from their team on, as part to help so sense check their programs or their campaigns.
Leow Yangfa 24:35 Yep, for sure. I mean, it will be ideal to have a queer or someone from the community being represented or representer on this part of the corporate partner coming in, but again, being said that it will also be a bit unfair to expect that representative to be able to speak on behalf of the entire community as again, so that's why diversity comes diversity in terms of a composition of the corporate business wanting to reach out with a community partner diversity in the issues being highlighted, for example, diversity in organizing committee. And it really, these things can well, rather, will matter and it will show with ideas and of course, with any creative or media angle. Yeah, just testing it out and I mean, risk management is a big part of it and also taking the time. I think more than anything, don't rush it, because some of the worst experiences that we hear of sometimes is very well intentioned ideas, collaborations happen but you know, because it was so rushed for time. The process wasn't thought through carefully, and it just stumbles.
Ian Lee 25:48 Yeah, absolutely. Here, you know, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to all your thoughts with us. Just to wrap up, you know, where can people go if they want to find out more about your campaign with Revolut? or would like to support Oogachaga directly?
Leow Yangfa 26:02 Yeah, sure thing so, Oogachaga website is Oogachaga.LGBT. So Oogachaga is spelt as it is pronounced. So it's OOGACHAGA, Oogachaga.LGBT, we are on the usual socials, so Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn and you can also do a quick search on Revolut Singapore Diversity Card. And then we'll show the campaign and information about how it's launched. If I'm not wrong, that specific campaign only works if you're actually in Singapore, and you want to make a donation to Oogachaga through the Revolut app and then you get the Diversity Card sent to you by post in Singapore. So yeah.
Ian Lee 26:44 Thanks so much, Yangfa. And once again, we're speaking with Leow Yangfa, Executive Director of Oogachaga, Singapore's most established LGBTQ+ community organization here in Singapore.