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An end to ‘time zone chauvinism’

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].

Categories: management
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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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Asia-Pacific social media influence

February 20th, 2012 / 1:37 pm

Categories: digital
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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 Brand Management Dinosaur

August 30th, 2010 / 11:24 pm

Here’s a first-rate presentation by B-M’s Steve Bowen on why marketing mindsets need to change to take advantage of digital and social media. His premise:  the effectiveness of integrated marketing communications is hampered by a reliance on marketing mindsets that do not reflect the reality of modern consumer interactions. Digital engagement is not about taking analogue marketing methods and rolling them out on digital platforms.  It is about finding new ways to engage consumers in an ongoing brand narrative not by directing content at them but by helping them find and interact with content that is meaningful and valuable to them.

How outdated thinking hampers brand communications

Categories: uncategorized
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The rise of Asia in the world of PR

August 17th, 2010 / 9:00 am

These days the media is filled with stories about Asia’s economic advance, and the public relations industry is no exception to the regional macroeconomic trend. If the business momentum of Burson-Marsteller in this part of the world is a good commercial gauge, then there’s a rising tide of PR investment in Asia and we can certainly expect the trend to continue.

For international communications firms based in Western countries and their multinational clients, Asia’s ascendancy represents either a great chance to ride the new PR wave to a truly global prosperity or a big risk to miss the boat entirely and be left standing on Western shores.

Winning in this new Asian century of PR demands listening and thinking with an open mind attuned to modern Asian sensibilities, not just talking and executing and bulldozing ahead with traditional Western approaches.

I think understanding the following factors will help determine which outcome occurs:

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 Shanghai or Mumbai. Whether it’s how media relations is conducted or the way that communities form on social networks or even how people communicate, the Asian experience can be markedly different than Western ways.

…and 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.

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 going through the roof with double-digit growth, 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 endeavor, 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 increases the cost spiral.

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 is at the heart of building a premium PR brand in Asia. At B-M, training the team to keep 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.”

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 North Asia, 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 bilingual poseurs who manage overseas audiences well in the language of convenience for head office.

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 foreigners come to Asia with the attitude that the Asian PR people are the students and they are teachers when a more peer-to-peer approach would earn 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 PR.

Remember the Asian talent

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).

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. Some companies are seizing this opportunity and putting global functions in Asia, but alas others still have the attitude that anything global must be based in a Western centre like New York or Chicago or maybe London. PR firms have certainly suffered from this myopic tendency, but not in our case (we have some global functions located in Asia, such as the leadership of our energy practice based in Beijing).

Asian PR citizens of the world

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.

I’m really proud that one of the distinguishing characteristics of Burson-Marsteller is that we have a very large exchange of professionals around the world, with robust people flows in all directions. Indeed, I consider the truly international character of B-M one of our greatest competitive assets. Here the priority is on being diverse, not conforming to be the same. Cross-border transfers in our consultancy aren’t rare; they are routine.

Relationships matter most

I can’t write any blog about PR in Asia without mentioning the value of relationships, which 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.

Indeed, it’s where the online meets the offline that’s the ‘sweet spot’ of PR in Asia, but more on that in a future post…


Categories: Asia
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