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Humanitarianism in the network age

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.

Categories: Asia, social media
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The marketing might of modern public relations

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

The marketing might of modern public relations from Robert Pickard

Categories: Asia, PR industry
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A decade doing PR in Asia

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…

Categories: Asia
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How to optimize social media for PR

January 2nd, 2012 / 5:33 am

Recently I was interviewed by Adobo Magazine in Manila and we did a quick stand-up video:

Categories: Asia
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America’s new PR offensive in Asia-Pacific

January 2nd, 2012 / 5:27 am

This is my latest ThinkTank column for The Holmes Report:

For many years now, the United States has been complacent in its Asia-Pacific public relations, punching way below the country’s PR weight. This is now changing all of a sudden.

The US has embarked upon a considerable communications campaign across the region. Wary of China’s rapid rise, America is proactively executing a PR blitz concomitant with the diplomatic charm offensive President Obama led at the APEC Summit, the announcement of a permanent military base in Australia and advocacy of a new trans-Pacific trading bloc that would pointedly exclude China.

It is the sheer proactivity of the new American effort that I find noteworthy. In recent years the US has been on the defensive in the Asian media, reeling from a constant drumbeat of negative coverage tracing its relative weakness and decline compared to the strength and ascent of China. It is the Chinese government that has often seemed to take the lead in managing the news cycle, acting aggressive, coming across as confident. The United States, by contrast, has seemed to be in ongoing retreat, consumed by economic and political troubles at home that affect the country’s ability to sustain its interests overseas.

What a difference a decade makes. I remember when I first came to Asia the image of the United States was at its zenith in Asia. America was respected for its economic success during the Clinton era as the government ran a surplus and economic growth was a given. American entertainment was popular and the soft power of the US was unrivalled. There was also an enormous sympathy for the country in the aftermath of 9/11.

But especially after the Iraq War in 2003 and the US-based economic meltdown of 2008, the reputation of America took a beating in Asia and from a communications perspective, the American narrative has been unimpressively random and reactive. It has been difficult to discern a strategy amid such a defensive communications context. There has also been this sense that America has become a narcissist nation, so self-absorbed in US-centrism that it is unlikely to achieve societal alignment with Asian sensibilities.

Say what you will about the Obama administration, but when it comes to Asia, it has been much more focused and effective in its communications with the region. The very act of American public relations engagement with Asia sends a signal of respect to stakeholders who are more accustomed to lectures than listening from the superpower. This more humble and friendly personality of US communications – America the student in Asia and not just the teacher – is most impressively evident in what we’re seeing on the digital diplomacy front, with innovative social media activities in south and southeast Asia.

Given the world-leading state of the public relations art in the US, it’s about time we saw the country leverage its PR prowess in support of its interests. Especially now that Asians are extrapolating China’s growth trajectory and can see it becoming the largest economy probably by the 2020s (a prospect that unnerves some neighbor nations fearing an overbearing Beijing), the perception that the United States still matters and is aligned with Asian interests will demand even more robust communications in the future.

Categories: Asia
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How Asian MNCs are using social media globally

November 3rd, 2011 / 2:48 am

Today in Singapore I enjoyed speaking at a great industry platform, The Holmes Report’s Asia-Pacific ‘ThinkTank Live.’ The topic: “How Asian corporations are using social media to communicate with global communities.” Click here for a copy of the presentation.

Categories: Asia
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Asia-Pacific social media infographics e-booklet

August 18th, 2011 / 4:30 am

Categories: Asia, digital
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The shift of PR wealth to Asia

June 30th, 2011 / 12:41 am

Here’s my latest column as the current Asia-Pacific contributor to The Holmes Report’s ThinkTank section:

Travelling in Europe the past few days, this Reuters headline caught my eye: “Asia surpasses Europe in millionaires and wealth” (based on a study published by client Merrill-Lynch).

It seems an apt milestone given that I have been delivering speeches on the theme of “the rise of Asia in the world of PR” and what European companies need to know about communicating in the region.

I think most people realize that the global economic order is shifting and that one day China will become the world’s largest economy. What’s less understood is how fast this is happening and the sheer scale that Asia is forecast to achieve during our lifetimes.

Citigroup recently projected that the Chinese economy will be bigger than each of America’s and the EU’s during the 2020s. By 2050, it will be much bigger than those combined, with about half (49%) of the world’s economy in Asia, up from 29% today. By then India will have the second largest GDP, the US in third place, followed by Indonesia and Brazil with individual European economies trailing far behind.

The PR industry will reflect this new economic order, with Asia commanding a much greater share of investment in communications services than ever before. By some estimates, the entire global PR consulting sector is worth $10 billion, but currently no PR firm bills even $100 million in Asia.

Two trends will change that soon enough:

First, the well known Western multinationals will boost their PR spending in Asia.

Today many of these are chronically under-investing in the region, with budgets flat and overly weighted towards mature Western markets. Many suffer from dated thinking about the fair market value of PR in the East as well as from chauvinisms concerning service quality rooted the stereotypes of another era. Still, for these companies, thriving in the future means more PR investment in Asia, the region that offers far greater growth potential than developed countries drowning in debt.

Second, the now one third (34% according to Forbes) of the world’s largest 2000 companies now based in Asia.

We’ve never heard of most of these emerging multinationals, and now they are starting to invest real money in global communications from an Asian platform.

That’s an important point, because PR campaigns in Asia have often been ‘hub and spoke’ efforts where decisions are made in Western capitals with regional headquarters city hubs administering implementation. Domestic PR efforts have tended towards localisation of globally supplied template approaches to PR.

Nowadays, with the face-to-face agency-client relationship based at the Asian headquarters, PR people in the East are gaining more opportunities than ever to devise and manage global PR campaigns. This is proving quite an adjustment for some in Western agency networks unaccustomed to following leadership direction from Beijing, Delhi, Seoul and indeed Tokyo. It’s also daunting for some people in senior positions who may have never run an international campaign from Asia before and who I’ve noticed may therefore suffer from a lack of confidence in leading their global charge from the East.

There is a long tradition of complaining about Western-centrism in Asia, with many derisive of those with ‘global’ titles who are thought to lack understanding of the Asian context. Sometimes these complaints seem valid but what we’re going to find now with this shift of global PR power is that it’s easy to criticise but a lot harder to paint on the bigger global communications canvases were seeing on our side of the Pacific for the first time.

Categories: Asia
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Helping Asian brands go global

June 1st, 2011 / 7:51 am

Here’s my latest column as the current Asia-Pacific contributor to The Holmes Report’s ThinkTank section:

I first moved to Asia a decade ago. Those days, when people in the public relations business referred to ‘global multinationals,’ it was almost always in reference to Western companies communicating from the outside into Asia.

All of this is changing, and changing very fast: large numbers of rising Asian multinationals are starting to communicate on a truly global basis as never before, and even the reluctant Japanese companies – faced with a dire, declining domestic marketplace – see the urgent need to aggressively invest in international PR.

Based on the statistics, we shouldn’t be too surprised. According to a new Forbes list published last year, a whopping 34% of the world’s top 2,000 companies are now based in Asia.

Maybe most of these 689 companies are generally unknown around the world. But often for imitative reasons following what the old Western multinationals have done before them, these new Asian multinationals increasingly believe that communications can help them build profile and secure competitive advantage. Thus many are asking themselves: “What is PR and how can we use it to help achieve our commercial objectives overseas?” Given the enormous potential that this market represents, the opportunities for the PR industry are compelling and we in the agency business had better be ready to provide some convincing answers.

I can tell you right now that while this next-generation multinational communications market is going through the roof and will be substantial, capitalizing on this trend is without a doubt among the toughest challenges in PR consulting.

Those lacking patience and perseverance need not apply for this kind of work. Quite a few of these ascendant multinationals are complete newcomers to modern marketing, and so convincing them to conduct pioneering PR campaigns can be a daunting proposition to say the least.

Cultivating relationships carefully, understanding the cultural elements in play, starting slowly with a few often underfunded projects to build confidence, and checking arrogant attitudes at the door are all prerequisites to success.

Keeping in mind that inside many an Asian corporation saving ‘face’ can be much more important than Facebook, social media represents both a challenge and an opportunity.

On the one hand, it can be difficult to persuade conservative executives accustomed to exercising the prerogative of top-down control that nowadays the credibility of communication comes from peer-to-peer conversation with people who expect to be heard. But on the other hand, because digital is by definition about data, now we can furnish the tangibility of numbers and proof of PR’s power to make the abstract elements of communications more understood in a clear way that commands greater budgetary resources.

Dynamic talent combinations agency-side are key; that means world calibre foreigners with face-to-face relationship interface in the Asian headquarters cities, working in tandem with senior Asians posted in key Western markets. In the past, it’s just been the former, but now the latter is de rigueur for firms serious about surfing the next wave of commercial opportunity in the world of PR.

This is a picture of me and my colleague Margaret Key with my good friend and former client Michael Choo of Kia Motors Corporation. Back in 2002 when I lived in Seoul, Kia become the first rising Asian multinational I counseled on international communications. It was among the toughest and most satisfying assignments of my public relations career.

Categories: Asia
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The Holmes Report’s ‘ThinkTank’

May 17th, 2011 / 5:00 am

During the past week I enjoyed my debut as a regular contributor to The Holmes Report’s new ‘ThinkTank’ section. Through this summer, I’ll be writing about news and views from Asia-Pacific. Here’s my first column: Pakistan? Now there’s a PR challenge.

Categories: Asia, PR industry
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