August 17, 2010

The rise of Asia in the world of PR

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…

  1. As a person who worked with Bob in the past as his successor, I can see Bob incredibly summarized all the key points he got with his real Asian experiences. The title of this post should be “Eleven Things Western PR Practitioners Should Know When You Want to Work in/with Asian PR Market” If any multinational PR firm really wants to maximize a growing Asian opportunity, these are the points that should be addressed and implemented within the boardroom. In a sense, many firms are missing many growth opportunities in Asia, and they should seriously look at these points. By the way, thanks for the great posting.

  2. Couldn’t agree more with your point on Asian PR citizens of the world. There is a need to embrace differences, cultures, language, perspectives etc. Good article.

  3. Bang on insights. Every point you make resonates deeply, and from my perspective and experience within emerging digital + social strategic work in Asia, the following one is absolutely key: “Aim for the money, and quality suffers; aim for the quality, and the money will always come.” Well put and so true! Thanks Bob for the great leadership.

  4. Insightful. It really speaks of your deep understanding of the business environment and culture in Asia. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Yes, I agree. PR firm who will win this Asian market, they will be the winner globally

  6. Impressive piece Bob! Running after the Asian business, one needs also to understand the core asian values: loyalty, trust, family (both extended and nuclear), status-oriented, practicality and conformity. Values that we share and are proud of.

  7. Pingback: [email protected] Rise of Asia in the World of PR by Bob Pickard « Echoes From the Valley

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