The role of public relations in a business is often misunderstood. One of the most common misconceptions is that its function is limited to writing press releases and organizing news conferences, said Sufintri Rahayu, the PR director of Indonesian online technology company Traveloka.
An accomplished communicator, Rahayu assured KrASIA that PR or strategic communication is much more than just words and images. “A good PR person must be able to help the company reach its strategic goals, not only from the communication aspect but sometimes also from the business development aspect as well,” Rahayu told KrASIA in an interview.
For example, a new tech startup may not deem press coverage crucial as they need to focus on building products and solutions for customers, but a maturing company that holds a unicorn status like Traveloka may feel that PR is needed to maintain its reputation and relations with all stakeholders.
It was Ferry Unardi, the co-founder and CEO of Traveloka, who realized that his company needed strategic communication to support its further development. Discussion with Unardi made Rahayu believe that she can give added value to Traveloka, using her solid experience in communications.
“I joined Traveloka in April 2018. Before that, Traveloka wasn’t really open to the media as it was more focused on developing its business and products,” Rahayu said. “One of the reasons why I decided to join Traveloka is because it was the only Indonesian tech startup that has businesses across Southeast Asia. I believed I could do something different here.”
Rahayu has almost 20 years of experience in leadership roles in PR and communications for a number of multinational companies. She started her career as a marketing communications manager at ASEAN Secretariat in 2000. Prior to landing her role at Traveloka, Rahayu was vice president of marketing and communications at Avrist Insurance.
As PR director, Rahayu acts like a conductor who conceptualizes and implements strategic communication and public relations strategy in Traveloka. She also looks after all PR activities in overseas countries where Traveloka operates.
“In addition to managing PR activities and media relations, I also maintain communications with other stakeholders including government agencies and other supporting external parties.”
As a leading Indonesian traveltech company, Rahayu believes Traveloka is loved by users at home and is supported by the government.
“Traveloka has a very good relationship with the government. We often brainstorm with the IT and the Tourism Ministers about how to advance the Indonesian tourism industry through digital innovation. We are very honored by their trust and one of my responsibilities is to ensure that these good communications remain as we go forward.”
With a strong corporate background, Rahayu initially experienced some challenges when adjusting to her role at a startup.
“I think the biggest challenge is how to educate the communities and stakeholders about what Traveloka is doing and its mission for Indonesia. Traveloka is continuously under the spotlight and gets much attention from media, analysts, and the public in general, so it is important to craft the right messages to maintain the integrity and appearance of the company,” she added.
Public relations is more than a supporting division
According to Rahayu, the PR function in early-stage startups might be more akin to media relations. “They might not need a PR director or head of communication yet, but the co-founders and business leaders should have a strategic communication that is aligned with the company’s business strategy as these two things are interrelated and must go hand in hand,” she explained.
“I applaud Ferry [Unardi] as he understands the importance of communication strategies in business so that the communications department is not only considered a supporting division but also part of a strategy to grow the company.”
Rahayu is directly involved in business strategy discussions and decisions at Traveloka including the development of new products and features such as Traveloka Xperience and PayLater.
“The launch of Xperience was an important milestone for Traveloka as we entered a new vertical that is travel and lifestyle. We have built a strong OTA function and now users can utilize Traveloka to create a seamless travel experience with this new product. The launching of Xperience was attended by IT Minister Rudiantara, Finance Minister Sri Mulyani, and Tourism Minister Arief Yahya. We were very touched by the love and support from the government,” Rahayu said.
Another memorable milestone for Rahayu was when Traveloka introduced the concept of PayLater as she was newly joined and directly involved when it was launched, which is now widely known by the public.
“We were the first tech company to introduce the concept of PayLater, which has now been adopted by many other startups. For us, this is an achievement that proves Traveloka has a great impact on society and the travel industry,” she said.
To Rahayu, the key factor to become a good communicator is to have the ability to listen and understand the needs of every stakeholder, find the key messages and translate those messages into positive, yet genuine stories.
“Listening plays a very important role in strategic communications, branding, and reputation management. In addition, honesty is equally essential. A communication strategist believes in good corporate governance and it is very important for us to stay true with the company’s mission and vision.”
Honesty is also needed in management issues or when facing a PR crisis.
Traveloka was caught off guard when AirAsia yanked its tickets from the site earlier this year. The matter was scrutinized by the media and public, but Rahayu and her team managed to remain calm and resolve the crisis with understanding and respect for all parties involved, she said.
“As the company grows, a crisis is an inevitable condition. When we are challenged with this situation, a communicator must able to do two things at the same time: think clearly and act fast,” Rahayu said.
“When handling an issue, we need to think about the most transparent way to address the situation and give a fast response without blowing things out of proportion.”
Strategic communications is a necessity for shaping messages and achieving success in business and it is most effective if messages are honest and repeated frequently, Rahayu concluded.
This article is part of “Women in Tech”, a series by KrASIA that highlights the achievements of women who are a driving force behind Southeast Asia’s tech startups.