June 1, 2011
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Helping Asian brands go global

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.

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