June 14th, 2013 / 3:42 am
I was honoured to speak recently in Bangkok [pictures here] at the Asia-Pacific unveiling of ‘Humanitarianism in the Network Age’ (HINA), a groundbreaking new United Nations social media study.
HINA examines the implications for how a world of increasingly informed, connected and self-reliant communities will affect the delivery of humanitarian aid. It lays out some of the most pertinent features of these new technologies, such as SMS, social media and others, and identifies the opportunities and difficulties in applying them.
With so much social media content published by multinational corporations aimed at marketing to affluent consumers, I find this excellent report refreshing because it addresses the aspirations and interests of many millions of people who don’t normally make it into the everyday digital story frame.
March 26th, 2013 / 4:06 am
On March 23rd I was honoured to address the Bangladesh Brand Forum seminar in Dhaka.
In my presentation, I argued that:
- social media is revolutionizing the way the world communicates and it is powering the public relations industry’s global ascendancy
- in Asia, PR has traditionally been a relatively minor and subordinate part of the marketing mix but now it increasingly occupies centre stage
- because public relations is at its essence a social networking business, it is well positioned to thrive in the digital domain, especially in a region where mobile communications are the new marketing battleground
- media relations and publicity will always be a key part of PR, but now creating content, building communities, understanding analytics and applying the psychology of persuasion are all part of the picture
- PR will always be about the art of relationships, but increasingly it is a measurable communications science
February 14th, 2013 / 3:50 am
At the invitation of my friend Dr. Michael Netzley, I recently delivered this presentation at the Lee Kong Chian School of Business in Singapore Management University on the topic of “Digital and social media across Asia-Pacific markets.” It provides a general overview of digital dynamics in Asia-Pacific and outlines some communications approaches designed to resonate with social media communities.
January 10th, 2013 / 2:50 am
If there’s one topic that seems to stimulate the passions of Asia-based executives working for Western multinationals, it is the ‘curse’ of late night conference calls inflicted upon them by usually a North American head office.
I’ve been wanting to blog about this for quite some time, but I am finally prompted to post after a conversation over drinks with a friend of mine last night who is head of corporate affairs in Asia for a major US multinational.
She pushed back recently when her company’s headquarters asked her to be on a regular call at 10 p.m. Singapore time (which is 9 a.m. Eastern time in North America). When I heard this, I felt she was quite right to have done so in the reasonable and polite way that she described. But I know from personal experience that it is never easy to resist even radically nocturnal calls when the headquarters insists, and nobody wants to seem like they are somehow being ‘difficult.’ A more equitable time for these calls – mutually but fairly inconvenient – would be 7 or 8 a.m. or p.m. at both ends.
Of course the corporate headquarters of a truly global firm should not casually impose these ‘command performance’ late night calls in the first place for routine purposes. That said, nobody gainsays doing these for matters that are actually urgent. I’ve been in the client service business for more than 20 years and will always do calls with customers day or night especially in case of emergency. Indeed, I’ve created 24×7 crisis communications telephone hotlines to help facilitate around-the-clock instant accessibility.
The calls that rub many executives on this side of the Pacific the wrong way are the regular ones scheduled at midmorning for headquarters and midevening or even towards midnight for Asia. In North America the people on the call are starting their day well rested. Their kids are probably off to school and they are usually at work during normal office hours. Meanwhile, over here in Asia, it is well beyond the end of what has already been a very long day during what should ideally be personal time. There could be kids to put down for the night and possibly a spouse annoyed that a family evening is lost.
Sometimes the scheduling of asymmetrical calls is ‘suggested’ but often they are just announced and set without prior consultation. This is sometimes done unwittingly out of ignorance, by people who just aren’t mindful of the time zones. However, sometimes it is not, and the subordinate Asia end is just supposed to go along with it.
Such an arbitrary approach of course does not make morale soar among the Asians. The unstated message being sent from North America is ‘we are headquarters and you will do things at our convenience’ and ‘your time – especially your personal time – is not as important as our time.’
In the end, I believe that a subsidiary in Asia should dutifully follow the preferences of headquarters. However, if companies want to say that they are ‘global’ in rhetoric then surely they should act that way in reality as they communicate with their own colleagues.
If Western companies want to be serious about ‘getting Asia right’ (even if this is a merely minor symbolic gesture internally), then they should treat their Asian colleagues with more respect and courtesy in the setting of these calls. ‘Eastern’ is an important time zone in North America but Eastern is also the direction of economic power in this world and so Asian time should command the same consideration. This seems especially valid when we’re seeing stories like this one in the media it seems just about every day reporting that “By 2030 Asia will overtake North America and Europe combined in global power.”
In the great scheme of things, irksome ‘midnight oil’ conference calls are not exactly a major corporate issue, but we North Americans better get used to the rise of Asia and this is just one small way to get with the new program in terms of how we go about things.
[I must provide the disclaimer that I’m not referring to any one company or client in the post above but just drawing on many experiences with this my eleventh year in Asia-Pacific. I should also add that I think the situation is improving, especially aided by executive mobility via trans-Pacific talent transfers].
October 8th, 2012 / 12:38 am
[The following draft is a rough translation into English from the article above which appeared in Bisnis Indonesia]
The public relations industry is a relatively new line of business which is seeing swift growth, especially in the Asia-Pacific region as most multinational companies are partnering with PR firms in building their communication to the mass media as well as to the public. Bisnis Indonesia had an opportunity to meet with President and CEO of Burson-Marsteller Asia-Pacific Bob Pickard to gain some insights on the PR industry’s competition in the region.
How do you see the development of the PR industry in Asia-Pacific?
We see that there is a tremendous growth of the PR industry in Asia-Pacific. We recognize that there are three things that were traditionally imported from West to East. The first is money invested in communications campaigns, the second is ideas, and the third is talent. But now Asia-Pacific exports all three of these things – here we have the money, the diverse ideas and a lot of human resources. There are many Asia-based multinational companies that have developed into big global players, and it creates a major market for the PR industry in Asia.
How much does a company usually spends for communication strategy?
Many companies in Asia-Pacific spend $1 million or more every year for public relations programs, covering the entire region. For instance, if a company which is headquartered in one country has branches in some other countries, such a budget would covers PR activities for all the markets. However, there are also companies which would spend $250,000 per year for their regional PR activities.
What is the strategy usually used by a PR company in order to reach their markets?
Currently, we are seeing a change in the communication model. Previously, the number of media outlets was so limited that every company tried to tell their story only through mainstream media. But now, social media is growing. It really helps PR companies deliver the clients’ message to the public.
Furthermore, communications built between companies and their stakeholders is no longer a one-way street, but more of a two way conversation. In the social media sphere, people can easily share any input with companies. In this context, every PR firm has to listen to what the clients need, understand the target audiences that they want to reach and also incorporate input from media before they can create effective strategies.
Do you think competition in the PR industry is tight enough?
There are hundreds of PR companies these days and some of them are located in Indonesia. This surely creates competition among the firms, especially in terms of the budget levels proposed to the clients. There are relatively small PR companies which would normally compete on price, while there are also PR firms that play at the higher level and compete on quality. Such firms provide premium thinking such as building a corporate reputation, handling CSR activities and they also become commercial consultants for the clients. Competition in the PR industry is not excessive. There is still a lot of room to develop. The PR industry is at a relatively early stage of development, unlike advertising which is already a more mature business.
With respect to price competition, does this pose a significant threat to big PR companies?
Not at all, in fact it provides opportunities for PR companies to be established and to thrive. The presence of new [Asian] PR firms provides new ideas that the more established PR firms should learn from.
Does each PR firm need to have special skills?
It is ideal for a PR firm to have the capability to meet the clients’ needs in all sectors. Nevertheless, PR firms need to build deep experience and knowledge by domain. In our experience, we don’t just cater to one sector or a single industry, but we do try to extend expertise across geography and practice (that includes building our networks with governments). This is crucial to build reputation and trust in a PR firm.
What needs to be done by a PR firm in order to grow?
Try to see how it was 20 years ago, before social media arrived on the scene. Brands from companies could only become worldwide because they were published in traditional media. The change has been very rapid. Currently, rising Asian companies are becoming top global brands because they utilize social media platforms. PR firms cannot escape from this evolution and they have to use social media as a strategy to drive clients’ communications. One day, there might be an Indonesian company which builds a truly international brand on a social media platform.
July 7th, 2012 / 4:35 am
It was exactly ten years ago today that I arrived in Asia at Seoul to start writing a brand new chapter in my communications career (after 12 years working in the North American PR industry). Reflecting back on that decade now, I feel so fortunate to be living in such a dynamic part of the world where sometimes it seems everything is always pointing in only one upward direction.
But that’s not always true (consider the case of Japan), and Asia is no stranger to business cycles. In 2002, memories in much of the region were still fresh from the 1997 financial crisis. At that time, the IMF, Wall Street investment banks and Western governments were ladling out unsolicited advice in heaping helpings to cash strapped Asian countries.
I remember such a smug condescension in communication from West to East during those days!
Of course, since the 2008 meltdown in America through the present day debt debacle in Europe, we have seen Asia quickly go from being the poor student to an increasingly affluent teacher, communicating with a humble tone admirably absent the kind of arrogant superiority to which Eastern ears had become accustomed to hearing in past.
The staggeringly rapid shift in economic power towards Asia is gathering momentum, and Western companies and people need to get used to it and update their outlook accordingly. Old assumptions and stereotypes need to change to conform to the new realities.
History teaches us repeatedly that as the economic centre of gravity goes, so goes the cultural and communications power. We see this happening now, whether it’s the Korean Wave or the rise of Bollywood while Hollywood declines or record expansion of the Chinese media globally while Western broadcasters cut overseas budgets.
In the global public relations business, Asia is also rising. The flow of Western talent and treasure into the region is well known in our industry, but less visible is the advance of many powerful Asian consultancies with international ambitions which are rising fast.
I’ve written about the rise of this region in the world of PR before, but on my 10th anniversary here I would like to share 10 truths about PR in Asia that especially Westerners in their home markets might consider:
1. Communication should start with humble listening, not boastful talking
Especially at a time when communication is becoming more and more about conversation on social networks, succeeding in this new Asian age demands listening and thinking with an open mind attuned to modern Asian sensibilities, not just talking and bulldozing ahead with traditional Western approaches.
2. What works in America or Europe doesn’t necessarily work in Asia
It’s a common sense point, isn’t it? But time after time, I see public relations effectiveness in Asia needlessly compromised by presuming that the way PR is done in New York or London will be effective in Tokyo or Hong Kong. Whether it’s how media relations is conducted or the way that communities form on social networks or even how people use language to communicate, the Asian experience can be markedly different than Western ways.
3. Asia is not a country
Indeed, as far as PR campaigns are concerned, there really is no such thing as a market called ‘Asia.’ It’s amazing to me the cookie-cutter assumptions I sometimes encounter about doing PR here; as if what works in China will work in India even though within each, there is an incredible degree of demographic, cultural, and linguistic variation.
4. Asian PR merits serious investment
Communicating with such diverse constituencies can command considerable PR resources, because operating in multiple languages takes much more staff time, which costs more money. When you consider the economic pressures of rising salary expectations in countries where the GDP is growing (not to mention high inflation levels in many markets), then higher prices than one has historically expected of Asia can be anticipated.
Stereotypes should not set PR budgets; Asian PR can already seem expensive compared to what many have assumed in the past. I’ve seen no shortage of situations where someone thinks that if PR costs a certain level in the West, then it should surely cost much less in the East, where ‘there’s much more cheap labour to go around.’ The problem is, in many Asian countries, PR is a relatively new or emerging field of endeavour, meaning that there’s a large demand for a much smaller supply of experienced PR people, driving prices up. Then there’s the expectation that all PR staff must be fluently bilingual in an international firm, in markets where often huge majorities of the population do not speak English, meaning all the recruitment demand fishes in a tiny bilingual talent pond that further steepens the cost spiral.
5. Quality is the thing
There is a lot of restless multinational PR money roaming around Asia, switching from one agency to the next, fed-up with mediocrity and looking for certainty of positive outcome across borders. In some Asian markets, there are few or not enough post-secondary institutions offering PR education, so the smart firms are taking matters into their own hands and building their own training capability. Education must be at the heart of building a premium PR brand in Asia. As especially friends in North Asia will remember, setting the PR standard for quality is my #1 priority. I often remind myself of what one of my Korean clients once told me: “Aim for the money, and quality suffers; aim for the quality, and the money will always come.”
6. English fluency is no guarantee of success
In many Asian PR offices, the best writer in the language that matters in the market may not communicate in English so well. When I ran offices in Seoul and Tokyo, some of our best media relations people couldn’t speak much English but the clients sure loved the publicity results. English fluency is no guarantee of a great strategic mind, and there can be these apple-polishing bilingual poseurs who manage overseas audiences well in the language of convenience for head office.
7. Forget the cultural condescension
Partly because English is a second language in Asia (meaning many PR people may not be so keen to challenge and engage in fast-moving debate in English at meetings and on conference calls), there is still this widespread sense that Western PR is somehow superior to or more advanced than Asian PR, but in my experience that’s not objectively valid nor relevant in most circumstances. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen loquacious foreigners come to Asia with the attitude that the Asian PR people are a relatively ignorant audience whereas they are like oracles. A more peer-to-peer approach always earns the most goodwill. Let’s also note that Asia is now teaching PR lessons of its own, as we see with the worldwide rise of ‘apology communications.’
8. Asian PR citizens of the world
A few years ago when I was running the Korean operation of another agency, I attended one of its meetings in Washington, DC when I made what I regarded as a statement of the obvious: “The global PR firm that attracts and champions the Asian talent will be the PR firm that wins in Asia.” I was challenged on that point by someone there, and was told that “the Asians look to the expatriate for leadership.” It was ironic to hear that kind of outdated talk, because my Korean successor was sitting in the room with me, and I think a key reason our office was the fastest-growing at that time in our company was the fact that the Korean staff knew he would be taking over after my two-year term and felt highly motivated by that eventuality (he and they went on to grow the business bigger than it was during my tenure).
There have been some stories lately about how because of ailing Western economies, job-seekers are heading East to Asia looking for opportunities. I don’t doubt it, but actually there have always been plenty of people heading to Asia; in the PR world, the flow in the other direction has been more like a trickle.
The Asian going West in an international PR firm — more so than vice-versa in my experience — can face many obstacles: stereotypes about whether people from their country can do well in the target country, assumptions about their ‘quality level’ (see above), questions about their language capability, whether they will find ample client business to fund their relocation, how adaptable they will be to a new cultural context, etc.
The priority must be on achieving diversity, not conforming to be the same. That’s why cross-border transfers in our consultancy aren’t rare; they are routine – and sincere (i.e. not primarily designed to prevent people being poached by a rival firm).
9. Asia as a global platform
For many years, the dominant trend in Asian PR for multinationals was the import of Western money, ideas and people into the region, but now we we’re starting to see significant export of all these things from Asia by all kinds of exciting emerging multinationals (who will become globally famous from Asia for the first time on a digital marketing platform).
Just about every other week we see major Western multinationals anchoring important international headquarters and global functions into Asian centres like Singapore, Hong Kong or Shanghai. Some PR firms are seizing this opportunity and putting global functions into the region – such as the leadership of our energy practice based in Beijing – but alas others still have the attitude that anything ‘worldwide’ must of course be based in a Western centre like New York or London.
10. ‘Face’ is just as important as Facebook
Probably the most important perspective you gain by actually living in Asia over several years is an innate feeling for the all-important ‘face‘ dynamic. Time and again, I’ve seen Westerners make costly mistakes in Asian commercial situations because they just don’t get it. In my opinion, grasping and mastering ‘face communications’ is the most important thing to know about doing PR in Asia.
I can’t write any blog on this topic without mentioning the value of relationships, which I think tend to have a different and often a more durable dynamic in Asia. During an era when a world with a shrinking attention span is embracing the transactional ways of fast-moving cool ‘digital’ technology, there is a special significance to the warmth of face-to-face ‘analogue’ relationships that stand the test of time.
Generally when doing business in Asia, I think the feeling is more ‘relationship first, contract second’ rather than ‘contract first, then relationship.’
Compared to what I knew working on the other side of the Pacific where needlessly aggressive and often angry e-mail communication is certainly not uncommon, here I find relatively friendly – if often spirited – face-to-face encounters are more the norm when it comes to solving disputes and finding common ground.
Or maybe I’m just imagining that, having been over here a very long time now…
May 7th, 2012 / 12:59 am
I was happy to see B-M back on the industry radar screen at this year’s Asia-Pacific PR awards. B-M China won “Product Brand Development Campaign of the Year” for its work on behalf of our client Wrigley, and I was honoured to receive the “PR Agency Head of the Year” award (which was truly a team trophy if there ever was one).
One of the highlights for me this year was being able to hand Brian Cronkhite of B-M Shanghai the “Corporate Communicator of the Year” award for the WPP X Team – in which our firm plays a leading role – for the Ford Motor Company.
February 24th, 2012 / 9:42 pm
February 20th, 2012 / 1:37 pm
February 9th, 2012 / 9:37 am
- Humanitarianism in the network age
- The marketing might of modern public relations
- Guest lecture at SMU on Asia social media
- An end to ‘time zone chauvinism’
- The PR industry remains strong
- A decade doing PR in Asia
- crisis communications
- guest post
- media relations
- national brand
- PR industry
- social media
- speaking platforms
hill & knowlton
- How do seating layouts influence consumers? http://t.co/tsOqNuLJl9 | The geometric quirks of 'priming' persuasion
- @AdrianLeeSA I think you are right. I'll have to try Kakao and Hangout. I've been a Skype stalwart for years but it's ideal for the desktop
- @13vyl I like the fact I can make free phone calls to other people on Viber with good sound quality
- I still use What'sApp, Line, WeChat, etc. but increasingly I think Viber is the best of all these mobile messaging apps
- Here are some pictures from my trip to Laos this week: http://t.co/UDR9ZqTkql
- RT @communicateasia: The language of social images is a new one for communicators. Hear the whole story: http://t.co/yj1TQOopaO
- The 5 worst fluffed interviews: http://t.co/pxB6Vswld8 via @guardian
- A spiffy new website from some old PR friends in Singapore: http://t.co/hm8SNzxIqx
- Choosing the best airplane seat [infographic]: http://t.co/soSHfQpWnj