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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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Guest lecture at SMU on Asia social media

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.

Digital and social media across Asia-Pacific markets from Robert Pickard

Categories: social media
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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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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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The 12 Truths of Modern PR

October 11th, 2011 / 8:23 am

Today I spoke at the Dow Jones forum in Korea: “Information Explosion: from Burden to Blessing.” See below for a copy of my presentation:

Categories: blog, speaking platforms
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Yingluck and Thailand’s chance for a new image

July 26th, 2011 / 3:27 am

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

Travelling in Thailand last week, most people I met were talking about the country’s new Prime Minister-elect, Yingluck Shinawatra, who just won a convincing election victory. Interest in the outcome has also been riding high overseas, and that is unsurprising because this story contains several newsworthy elements.

First, Yingluck shares her brother Thaksin’s famous surname. Second, there has been a long power struggle pitting the colour-coded ‘red shirts’ of the Shinawatra side against the ‘yellow shirts’ supporting the outgoing government and there’s nothing the news business loves more than a battle between two starkly different sides (who in this case have been fighting a closely watched pseudo civil war). Third, the prospect of election violence made media watch more closely than might otherwise be the case because there seemed an excellent chance it could erupt in the aftermath of the vote. Finally, Yingluck seems quite unlike other Thai leaders because she is a woman and this sets her apart in a country where most senior political leaders are men.

In Bangkok there is all kinds of speculation about how long Yingluck will last in office. The most frequent prediction I heard was “a year, maybe two.” This is, after all, a country where the results of democratic elections have not always determined who ends up running the country. Yet just about everyone I spoke with is hoping that Thailand’s new elected government will be given a fair chance to succeed and that the democratic process will prevail.

There has been a sad political instability in Thailand for years, holding the country back and making it seem a rickety regime and a bad bet for doing business. Now that Thailand seems to have a chance for a fresh start with a popular new government, there is an opportunity for the country to earn a new and improved reputation overseas.

The key to building a better Thailand brand is the ability to exceed expectations, for positive things to happen henceforth that are contra to the past negative or limiting stereotypes. For example, boring stability for a change would be an effective antidote to the past eventful and erratic political pattern.

Not many people know that Thailand is the second largest economy in Southeast Asia (after Indonesia), so communicating the commercial dimensions of the country will help underline why markets and media should pay closer attention.

How many famous Thai companies are there around the world? I would say most people could not name one. This limits the extent to which opinion-leaders will feel that “Thailand matters.” This lack of known national champion corporations (like LG or Hyundai in Korea) keeps Thailand confined to a national stereotype template as a terrific tourism destination but not as a serious commercial contender.

I am told that there are many Thai companies that merit external attention and engagement, but unlike conglomerates in other ASEAN countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, I don’t see any actively communicating their story through public relations on a global basis.

That’s why the fact that Yingluck is a CEO with experience as a company spokesperson may be her most significant public relations asset. She has run a business in Thailand and her ascension to high office has allowed her communications skills to flourish. I believe that this should help her help Thailand become a rising force in the world of national reputation.

Categories: blog, national brand
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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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Digital crisis communications in Asia

June 18th, 2011 / 2:03 pm

I have just finished doing an e-mail interview for a major Asia-Pacific marketing publication, and here is what I submitted (they’ll selectively use some quotes, but seeing how I spent all this time jotting the answers, figured I should post the whole thing here on my blog):

What is accounting for the growth of crisis management as a PR service?

The demand for crisis communications consulting is going through the roof right now because social networks are creating so many additional touch-points for risk and reputation. Companies that in the past may have been reluctant to admit the dimensions of a mistake now realize that digital creates such radical transparency it is pointless to be defensive and try and cover things up and conversely profitable to be proactive and engage people with the facts of the matter. Some folks falsely believe that PR is just about brand promotion but these days its role in reputation protection is more important than ever.

How is digital and social media changing the crisis management landscape and are in-house and agency PRs equipped to cope?

Worldwide the PR industry has been quickly retooling its factory to capitalize on the new possibilities of digital for crisis communications. We have always been in the relationships business where conversations and engagement come naturally, so we’ve really been able to turn on a dime in a very short period of time during the social media revolution. The fact that PR firms are themselves in the process of becoming social businesses helps us counsel clients on social media with an assured confidence. We’ve been doing a lot of development in digital storytelling, programming and weaving repurposable content across platforms into streams.

On the client side, some in-house teams are modernizing fast but others are mired in the assumptions of another era. In Asia a lot of companies are making excellent progress but all too often, corporate communications remain centered on one-way, top-down monologues where ‘face’ can sometimes seem more important than Facebook.

Is there significant difference between crisis management in Asia and the West?

It’s difficult to make sweeping generalizations, but I find the role of lawyers in a crisis is far stronger in the West, especially with respect to the making of an apology, which comes more easily to corporations in the East which may be less concerned about how saying sorry for making a mistake somehow constitutes an admission of guilt with liability implications.

Do Asian governments and corporations take PR seriously enough as a way of handling a crisis?

It depends which government we are talking about. I think the Chinese government takes PR very seriously and it has demonstrated crisis communications prowess in past, especially in the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the Japanese government, which has famously not taken PR seriously enough in the wake of the country’s recent triple disasters. In terms of response speed, decisive leadership communications and use of social media, China has generally evidenced a better command of communications. Then there are the Koreans, who are very advanced on digital crisis communications in particular.

How do cultural and geographic differences in Asia impact responses to a crisis?

The diversity of Asia between and within countries makes it challenging and yet critically important to master the nuance and tonality of the language that is used in highly sensitive issues management and crisis communications situations. To some extent we have a ‘lingua franca’ in the world of PR, but what works in English doesn’t always work in other languages so a tailored and not just translated approach gets the best results. English can be so direct and subject-centric and ‘conclusion first,’ whereas some Asian languages can be quite the opposite, so knowing this can make all the difference.

I think especially in East Asia the transcendent importance of ‘face’ is such that companies are reluctant to engage in peer-to-peer communications with their communities online, with fear of losing control and thus face having the effect of dampening the kind of dialogue that might help defuse a crisis situation.

Is the PR industry in Asia sophisticated enough to adequately provide this kind of service and where can improvements be made?

The premise of this question underscores the work we need to do in Asia but also the biases we need to correct and update. In my view, there is plenty of sophisticated crisis communications consulting capacity in Asia, but it overwhelmingly resides in the international PR firm ‘ghetto.’ There are some excellent domestic in-market independents coming along but there are many others who suffer from development challenges.

What I have noticed is that there are too many crisis communications poseurs out there, ‘experts’ who can deliver a decent training seminar but then haven’t the foggiest when a real situation explodes. I also see this tendency with social media for people to share information about crisis communications with others online and then to overestimate the extent of their own expertise. There are those who seem to feel that to Re-Tweet the thinking of others is to become an expert themselves.

What specific training are brands doing in this area? Is it enough?

What we’re seeing is accelerating demand for full-scale digital crisis simulation training. The old analogue crisis simulations were heavily scripted, but to those participating the format presented them with some daunting if unlikely dilemmas. Now the new digital training moves at warp speed and confronts trainees with a bewildering array of wildfire stimuli that simulate real-life social media conditions.

What are your top tips on the best ways to handle a crisis?

There is no doubt that speed is a key factor in a crisis, but responding accurately is equally important. Better to refrain from speedy and sloppy glib statements and instead take the time to transparently communicate the verified facts of the matter.

Times have changed and the rules of the game have evolved. It used to be that crisis communications were defensive and reactive, with holding statements used like protective shields to keep critics away. Nowadays I think crisis communications need to be aggressive and proactive, where we invite people to participate right from the start and then communicate continuously.

Passively waiting for the crisis to pass and then rebuilding reputation is arguably an outmoded approach because in these digital times by then it is too late. It makes more sense to actively prevent the storm in the first place by engaging people, listening to what they have to say, apologizing for mistakes and humbly asking for ideas to help ensure continuous improvement. Brands used to act like things; now they are expected to act like people. This is especially true in crisis communications situations which are golden opportunities to showcase a company’s character at its finest, with personality, humor and gravitas ideally on conspicuous public display.

Categories: crisis communications
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