December 10th, 2013 / 1:06 am
Lately I’ve had great fun playing with the Ngram Viewer, which visualizes the presence of keywords and phrases used in the countless books which Google has scanned in recent times. Given all the turmoil lately in the marketing world (in my case the PR industry) about which labels to use in describing our services, I thought it would be interesting to see how the different monikers have trended over the years (from 1900 until 2008, the most recent year available):
What I notice is the relentless rise of ‘marketing,’ which eclipsed ‘advertising’ decades ago. I was delighted to note the continuing – if declining – popularity of ‘publicity,’ a retro expression many in PR abandoned but that I have continued to enjoy using throughout my career (which started around 1990). ‘PR’ and ‘public relations’ remain subordinate to other expressions (including ‘publicity’), with the former having edged ahead of the latter in the early 1980s. ‘Public relations’ peaked in the late 1950s, the same decade when many of today’s great global consultancies were founded.
The significance of all this?
Possibly very little, except to underline the staying power of categories in the public mind which we should be careful about casually discarding with the advent of ‘digital.’ That term and ‘social media’ hadn’t really penetrated books that much by 2008, so it will be interesting to run a new Ngram a few years from now to gauge the extent of their ascendancy in common parlance.
October 22nd, 2013 / 6:00 am
[Click here to download this article in .pdf format]
As a public relations professional for almost a quarter century (split about evenly between North America and Asia Pacific), for years I have been trying to make sense of global warming from a communications perspective.
As far as I’m concerned, global warming is by far the biggest long-term challenge that our world faces. This problem can only be addressed if it is thought to be important enough – and urgent enough – for people (both elites and mass society) to think and act differently about climate change than they have before, and to do so in concert with each other.
I can only see that happening if the public relations efforts around climate change improve dramatically. That’s because right now, current communications – while no doubt earnest and sincere – are just not getting the job done (if, indeed, it can be done against the many daunting obstacles which this post will attempt to partially describe).
Getting the whole world to believe and behave differently is a tall order, but that’s what we PR people do every day in the service of multinational corporations. I think global warming should be a ‘call to arms’ for the PR profession, because we’re supposed to be better than anyone at the mastery of persuasion that’s so conspicuously lacking from existing climate change communications.
I’ve been following this issue for decades as a loyal reader of Scientific American magazine (which sounded the alarm early), but it was only a few years ago – stimulated by Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” movie in 2006 and spurred by the UN climate change report published the year after – that climate change really broke through and got on the global ‘radar screen.’
The tide of coverage seems to have crested then and has been dropping since. If you look at the presence of either ‘global warming’ or ‘climate change’ in news headlines (as tracked by Google Trends in this graph), you will see that the former peaked in 2007 and the latter in 2010, with current attention levels significantly below the earlier highs.
It is remarkable how little has actually been done since then to deal with climate change – and the current lack of public affairs urgency is absolutely breathtaking.
Such an ‘existential’ threat to our world’s future should command much more mainstream media coverage than it is currently earning. Whether that is related to a decline in the business fortunes of the traditional media – especially serious news platforms – or the ownership of outlets is debatable.
I also do not see on social media networks the kind of intensity that climate change should properly merit (although that may be starting to shift). The coverage and conversations that do occur lack ample alarm given the potential enormity of the consequences for future generations.
There are many reasons why climate change is such a vexing communications conundrum; I don’t presume to have all or even most of the answers, but here’s what I have pieced together so far (in no particular order):
The ‘collective yawn’ that greeted the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the latest example of an important and ominous study that did not create the coverage it should have commanded. The attention it did generate was marred with sideshow distractions that detracted from the big picture.
I fear that there has been so much banal publicity concerning climate change in recent years, bland stories within the segment have become part of a routinized ‘new normal.’ The topic seems to have been ‘demoted’ in terms of editorial placement priority, with lower prominence and fewer reporting resources.
There’s an unfortunate irony here of course, because on the one hand while climate coverage has become common and the subject is famous, thematically it is highly repetitive and stale with limited news value.
The result is the absence of ‘stop the presses’ media play on climate change that might help spur an imperative for action.
There could not be a worse match between the climate change cycle and the news story cycle. The speed and timing of climate change is slow and gradual, whereas the news is about fast-moving and sudden developments.
The scientists tell us that temperatures are increasing and the seas are rising (as well as getting more acidic), but only in tiny fractions year-over-year. The problem is that what seems infinitesimally small and insignificant during our typical short-term perception frames is a terrible trend extended over decades and centuries.
Even when that is explained and quantified, it becomes difficult for people – and we humans are not very good at visualizing the future – to imagine what an increase in an average temperature of say 2° C means for the Earth as a whole. This is especially difficult to conceive when the daily temperature swing in most places can be much larger.
The temporal dynamic is even more insidious when you consider that even though around the world the new record high temperatures being set routinely outnumber the new record lows, often there are exceptions to the long-term trend which breed a false complacency. This is especially true when there are cold snaps in global media capitals such as New York, London or Hong Kong.
The contrast effect
Not only can we not easily perceive climate changes over time, but we can’t see the ‘culprit’ of carbon dioxide at all because it is a clear gas. As a result, many aren’t noticing worrisome changes in the environment because they have difficulty imagining them.
We humans aren’t ‘wired’ to notice small changes over a long period. But we do tune into extraordinary things with shocking visual imagery that happen suddenly or with unusual intensity, like floods, fires, storms and droughts. This has been called the ‘contrast effect.’
But unless or until those things all happen constantly in an unprecedented way, there will be a ‘wishful thinking’ tendency to hope that these are normal climate fluctuations.
Of course, by then it might be too late…
The die is cast
Indeed, there are those who say it already is and that we’re doomed anyway. So why should we work ourselves into a lather about global warming if there is nothing we can really do about it?
People familiar with the patterns of economic growth in this world know that all the carbon dioxide released since the Industrial Revolution by what are now the developed countries will soon be dwarfed by the emissions of the developing nations such as the BRICS (who are only getting started in terms of their economic output).
That reality is inescapable and inevitable, so in this context of massive guaranteed CO2 emissions, just how are we supposed to arrest or even attenuate climate change?
For that matter, how on Earth are we going to reconcile our demand for never-ending increase in economic growth with, at the same time, having a world economic system that doesn’t cause a climate catastrophe?
Even with the remarkable strides in renewable energy technology during recent times, the absence of a climate change ‘macro fix’ makes people think it is more of a tough problem to tackle (conversely, though, the hope for one through blind faith in geo-engineering solutions is another source of resistance to change for some). The CO2 levels will only keep increasing, so the thinking goes that any effort to stop climate change is ‘pie in the sky.’
‘It’s too big and I’m too small’
Even if people come to be concerned about climate change and think it is important, they may lack efficacy regarding what can be done. It is such a humongous problem, no one country or continent – and certainly no community or person – can solve it on their own.
The conspicuous failure of the most famous effort to do so – the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference – might have created a profound defeatism as far as multilateral action is concerned.
I also think that many people must conclude that they as ‘atomized’ individuals can’t have much of an impact solving an intractable global problem. ‘Cause’ and ‘effect’ can appear so unrelated and any impacts feel remote instead of proximate. I have heard this called ‘psychological distancing.’
Certainly the lack of efficacy seems overwhelming, and this won’t change so long as climate change is communicated so badly.
Climate change has been depicted almost exclusively as an environmental concern, which may limit its salience. But it will go far beyond that sphere, affecting our economy, our infrastructure, our lifestyles and indeed our health.
Then there are visual story frames to consider. ‘Neuromarketing’ experts have said – and this is a simplified take – that people tend to decide what to believe and what to do in their unconscious brains, and that visual storytelling is key to convincing that most influential part of the mind. If that is so, then the challenge for climate change communicators is how to tell visual stories with images of things that in many cases haven’t happened yet or which people haven’t personally experienced.
This might be the most problematic framing constraint: around the world in most countries, people are richer and living healthier and longer lives than their ancestors.
How do we make a compelling case for personal and political change to combat global warming when – compared to any era in history – human life on Earth has never been better?
Wearing digital blinders
The acceleration of exponential advances in technology will support increased prosperity, and accentuate our perception of prosperity.
However, the more we are engrossed by digital technology and stare fixedly at dazzling displays much of the day, the less we might notice about the environment around us (just watch people in public spaces totally enthralled by their private technology experience).
Paradoxically as digital connects people into social networks online, there are reports of increased isolation, a decrease in empathy, plus a reduction of attention spans. If these things are happening, then they may become resistance factors that make climate change communications efforts more difficult.
A lot of people thought the mind-controlled world of Orwell’s “1984” would be our society’s biggest threat, but especially with smart phones sometimes seeming like a digital ‘soma,’ I wonder if Huxley’s “Brave New World” isn’t closer to the mark.
Then there is what could be called the changing nature of activism with the advent of digital. If someone is worried about climate change and wants to be associated in front of their social network community with such concern, for far too many, activism may begin and end when they merely ‘like’ or ‘follow’ a worthy cause (“I’ve done my part!”).
Cut-off from the country
In an ever-urbanising world, fewer lives are directly connected to the rhythms and patterns of nature, and city dwellers can’t perceive subtle climate changes as easily. I live in air-conditioned and high-rise Singapore, a prime example of a place where human development has achieved a commanding dominion over a ‘controlled’ environment.
Humans apparently have a psychological tendency to find ways to believe what they already think is true (and to find information which supports a position currently held), reinforcing the denial of the climate change ‘skeptics.’ People also seem to have a pronounced tendency to overestimate how much they know, and this is certainly true if you compare popular sentiment with the scientific consensus. Also, because climate change becomes a ‘debate’ between two ‘sides,’ denialist opinion gains more credence than it otherwise deserves.
The skeptics can be very vocal in projecting their opinions. Have you ever noticed how many of them come out of the woodwork and post denial comments when climate change stories appear online?
I don’t see some sinister global conspiracy of climate deniers, but the fact that there are so many who are claiming climate change is a hoax is seeding doubt about whether to believe in the problem and breeding complacency regarding whether to act differently – or not.
Saving a happy face
Not long ago I spotted this story: “Why Happy People Hide From Climate Change” which suggests that people with a sunny disposition are less likely to seek out global warming stories. I’m not sure how that works exactly, but apparently people who are already concerned about climate change are more inclined to look for more information about it (which overwhelmingly would provide even more reasons to feel concerned).
Especially on social media, it seems we’re supposed to wear happy masks and be perennially positive, so articulating concern about climate change associates us with an unappealingly negative and pessimistic image of a dystopian future.
How many of us are familiar with this conventional wisdom: ‘Don’t worry about those things in life over which you have absolutely no control?’ So why taint your image by becoming a ‘doom and gloom’ type worried about climate change?
The complexity mire
There has been an obvious failure to connect climate change with our everyday lives and paint a clear picture of how our lives might be affected. Hopefully what National Geographic has just done with this map showing what will happen if all the polar ice melts will become more mainstream.
Climate change is a complicated subject and understanding the story in depth requires longer than many people are now willing or able to focus on a single topic. While the public attention span for serious stories has collapsed, there is no shortage of celebrity nonsense and sensational trivia – ‘twerking’ comes to mind – to provide plenty of distracting entertainment for the masses.
Let’s face it; fundamentally, most people don’t have enough time to sort out the complexity of climate change, because they have enough going on in their busy lives.
Now, it is true that this is a complicated problem, but in terms of what people need to understand and act upon, it’s somewhat more simple: “climate change is really happening > climate change is a bad thing > climate change is caused by humans/can be solved by humans > there is hope and there are things we can do.”
That said, getting this across to people, embedded it in their psyche, and driving coordinated individual and institutional action is much easier to say than it will be to get done.
Connecting too many dots
Even if communications in the future break through and convince people that humans are causing the warming that is melting the polar ice, fostering torrential rains, driving droughts, kindling wildfires, acidifying and raising the seas, then so what?
Well, then of course the challenge is to connect these things to the consequences for humans, such as water supply, changes to the food chain, property destruction and competition for land, mass migrations, the distribution of diseases, extinction of species, heat waves, storms and flooding, etc.
Stemming from these developments, the potential for violent conflict between and within nations seems obvious, but I don’t think more than a small minority have thought ahead and projected potentially frightening end games.
Acting like the proverbial ostrich
For those who do ‘get it’ and see what’s coming if we do nothing, the consequences of climate change are so terrible to contemplate, I think many deny it sort of like people still smoking downplay that it might cause them cancer. I chose this analogy on purpose because it sure looks to this layperson like there is now the same scientific consensus on humans causing climate change as there was on cigarettes causing cancer (following a similar period of overwhelming scientific consensus).
“I’ll be dead by then”
Speaking of mortality, I’m in my late 40s and so should avoid the worst of the predicted climate catastrophe during my lifetime. For a long time, I admit that thought made me only care so much about global warming. I only really became emotionally involved in this topic after our children were born starting in 2007. Imagining them suffering because of how previous generations screwed-up the environment – while not taking action before it was too late – makes me feel upset and far more disposed to believe that timely and profound action needs to be taken.
In these cynical and jaded times, coming out and declaring that ‘the Earth’ or ‘Mankind’ or ‘the Human Race’ hangs in the balance sounds overly dramatic, even a tad maudlin. A few months ago, I hesitated to add the phrase “concerned about climate change” to my Twitter profile because I thought people might find me a bit overwrought (I went ahead anyway).
I’ve been involved with sustainability since attending the UN Earth Summit at Brazil in 1992, and if I’m thinking that way, maybe others less engaged are even more reluctant to publicly connect themselves to the climate change cause.
Speaking of which, I also notice that when I share something on global warming via Facebook and Twitter, there are fewer likes or re-tweets compared to almost anything else I might post about.
Ironically, efforts to improve climate change communications have themselves been poorly communicated.
There are many worthy scientific communications activities around climate change. These are well intentioned, intelligent, logical and data-driven. Unfortunately, these activities can be very dry, tactically amateur, emotionally remote and strategically unclear. Some appear limited by their US-centrism or predominant engagement with the ‘anglosphere’ countries.
It looks to me as though these people are doing their jobs, but we can’t expect climate scientists to be communications professionals any more than communications professionals should be assumed to be able to easily master the climate science.
But we can hardly blame the climate scientists for taking communications matters into their own hands. They know better than anyone that global warming is going to be much worse than what most people think. They can see how the publication of one alarming study after another is not getting the message across or galvanizing people to take action.
Bridging the dangerous gap between what scientists know about the planet and how the society is behaving – and not taking their important and urgent information into account – is one of the most acute imperatives of our time.
It looks like the academics and scientists are doing their level best, but it is simply not going to be enough unless the world’s corporate communications community – especially the PR industry – is somehow mobilized.
There was what appeared to be a substantial conference on climate change communications in China earlier this month, but if you read the agenda, you will notice what appears to be the conspicuous absence of a single senior global-grade PR or corporate communications leader (currently serving anyway).
Analogue communications for the digital age
Judging by the tonality and content of what I’ve seen thus far, most of the opinion leaders on climate change think and speak in a woolly way about how the cause needs better ‘communication.’ It is easy to tell that many are thinking about and actually doing communications in the old-fashioned one-to-many top-down manner, where packaged messages are transmitted in a monologue to a captive audience.
In writing this, I think that the PR people reading will know instinctively that of course nowadays communication is about peer-to-peer horizontal dialogue that starts with listening, a conversation where ideas and information are freely shared between co-creators. It also occurs to me that many if not most of the scientists doing climate change communication may be completely unaware of this seismic shift.
Public relations in the public interest
Climate change is too big a problem for any single person or institution to solve, so even the most effective communication will probably be inadequately riveting. Communication is not synonymous with public relations; it is a key function, but PR also involves understanding and explaining public opinion to affect wise decision-making. It can help transcend traditional audience boundaries through relationship brokerage, social networking, and community building. I think if we apply all the rallying power and convening capability of the PR profession to the challenge of climate change, we could have a fine example of what some have aptly called ‘public relations in the public interest.’
Where are the PR people?
I have been tracking the topic of climate change communications for months and what I’ve noticed is the almost complete dearth of the world’s top public relations leaders in the discussion. In some cases, I suspect their lack of engagement could have something to do with their portfolio of ‘carbon-rich accounts’ (which I have shared in some of my past energy practice client work). But with most energy companies starting to engage more openly in the global warming dialogue, there’s no reason why most PR professionals can’t start communicating with conviction on climate change.
PR has actually become such an aggressive and vivid concept in the public mind, perceived to be more important than ever: ‘PR war,’ ‘PR battle,’ ‘PR blitz, ‘PR spectacle,’ etc. It’s almost as if PR is now seen as a mighty secret weapon to be used to defeat one’s enemies.
You would never know it though, judging by our industry’s underwhelming presence in the conversation about our most formidable foe in the future. With some notable individual exceptions, I think PR’s lack of strong senior leadership on global warming work is an embarrassment to the industry. When it comes to climate change communication, saying ‘I’m only the PR person’ and sitting on the sidelines is a cop-out. The encouraging thing is that I know many rank-and-file PRs are already doing their part – including in client and pro-bono cause work – and still more are ready to be mobilized in the cause.
As the industry of the world’s most powerful information workers, dealing with the looming PR disaster of climate change should be our cause célèbre. Here we can stand for something we’re proud of and give our work more of the meaning we’ve always wanted, by being the best we can be as a profession to make a decisive difference.
Like most ‘PR disasters,’ climate change is in fact a reality disaster. But if PR people get organized enough and resourced enough, we can help avoid this one before it happens.
OK, so what can we do?
Well, if it were so easy to know the answer to that question, then perhaps we would have already amassed an impressive track record.
In my next blog post I will be sharing some modest suggestions – mine and from others – for what PR people can do to play their part to help achieve drastically improved climate change communications.
Every day, many thousands of corporate communicators around the world help motivate the opinions and actions of billions of consumers we persuade on behalf of famous global brands. We can apply our vast experience and influential capabilities in the service of climate change awareness and activism.
We need to sound the alarm, break through the barriers and focus attention. By connecting communities, creating convincing content, and convening conversations, we can help massively improve the quality and effectiveness of climate change communication.
We humans could not be wired worse when it comes to perceiving and dealing with a threat like global warming. Overcoming all the cognitive biases and practical obstacles I’ve outlined here will not be easy no matter how wonderful the public relations.
Yet particularly when social media is becoming the world’s new central nervous system and is fostering an emerging collective global consciousness, I think PR can help inform, influence and inspire as never before.
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
- Visualizing the rise and fall of marketing monikers
- The climate change PR disaster
- 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’
- climate change
- crisis communications
- guest post
- media relations
- national brand
- PR industry
- social media
- speaking platforms
- Russia's U.S. PR firm distances itself from Ukraine dispute: http://t.co/L2ImPMmBDG
- When to use “I” and “We” in public communication: http://t.co/svHilJjUYv | The former for resolve and the latter for accomplishments
- The psychology and philosophy of branding, marketing, needs, & actions: http://t.co/qsfOxiTNBc
- @InaBansal Well I would consider that a compliment - and a tribute to your networking skill!
- This LinkedIn Maps network visualization tool is cool: http://t.co/7PGKRiCxy5
- More and more news releases are raining down on fewer journalists: http://t.co/SFzlANFGGD | via @LouHoffman
- Russia Today TV anchor @lizwahl quits, says she can't be part of a network 'that whitewashes’ Russia’s actions: http://t.co/WdlqL9cWTo
- .@butlersam Well that is a key question (& major concern); media are increasingly migrating to PR to tell corporate stories - is that ideal?
- RT @communicateasia: Dissatisfied journalists are flocking to brands looking for quality 'brand journalism:' http://t.co/6QF4QoeUCG