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The PR industry remains strong

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.

Categories: 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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The Asia-Pacific PR awards

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.

Categories: awards
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Digital crisis communications infographic

February 24th, 2012 / 9:42 pm

Categories: crisis communications
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Asia-Pacific social media influence

February 20th, 2012 / 1:37 pm

Categories: digital
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Crisis communications in 2012

February 9th, 2012 / 9:37 am

Recently Campaign Asia-Pacific magazine in Hong Kong asked me to share some thoughts concerning the evolution of crisis communications in 2012. Click here to read the piece.

Categories: crisis communications
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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.

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Social responsibility > Social marketing > Social media

November 2nd, 2011 / 3:14 am

Today I was honoured to address the Global HR Forum in Seoul, Korea on the topic of “Social responsibility > Social marketing > Social media.”

See the below or click here to review the presentation.

The event also garnered media interest, with this article appearing in the Korea Economic Daily (Korean language):



Categories: CSR
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