Asia leads the field in PR 'reinvention'

Creativity, social media, brand loyalty, talent and youth top the bill as second PR360Asia conference draws delegates from around the region.

  • Camilla Hammar... quizzed by Glenn Osaki (right)  on the best methods for accurately assessing the effectiveness of corporate communications

    Camilla Hammar... quizzed by Glenn Osaki (right) on the best methods for accurately assessing the effectiveness of corporate communications

  • Social media... capturing interest is only half the battle, engagement requires good content

    Social media... capturing interest is only half the battle, engagement requires good content

  • Brand advocacy... searching for the ‘Holy Grail’ of customer loyalty largely seen as a price-point issue in Asia

    Brand advocacy... searching for the ‘Holy Grail’ of customer loyalty largely seen as a price-point issue in Asia

  • Catherine Simmons... Asian voices need to make themselves heard on “top table”

    Catherine Simmons... Asian voices need to make themselves heard on “top table”

  • Mariko Sanchanta... “Being part of a giant holding company is like a blessing and a curse”

    Mariko Sanchanta... “Being part of a giant holding company is like a blessing and a curse”

  • Rising stars... young players call for their opinions to be valued, even when they disagree with their bosses

    Rising stars... young players call for their opinions to be valued, even when they disagree with their bosses


The days of PR concentrating purely on media relations are over and the hunt for a new offering is on, but the industry must avoid becoming a "jack of all trades" in the rush to adapt.

That was the message Camilla Hammar, head of communications for Ikea China, delivered in her keynote address to the second annual PR360Asia conference, held in Hong Kong last month.

"We need to stay true to what we know best, but learn other skills and understand how we can use them in the best way to get the point through," Hammar said in her address, a series of 10 statements outlining her views of the state of the PR industry in an engaging two-part session that opened the event.

Drawing on her previous experience as a chief marketing officer, she pointed out that a good deal of ad agency thinking could easily be interpreted as PR agency thinking.

"It’s more about ideas than channels," she said. "If you can do that well, you have an edge."
In terms of talent, she said it was still hard to attract the best at the entry level. But she added that with the industry changing as it is, salaries were likely to rise and PR agencies would come to more closely resemble "top consultancy firms".

Hammar said she was optimistic about Asia’s role in leading the "reinvention" of the PR industry, something she attributed largely to the faster adoption and adaptation of technology in the region compared to Western markets.

The Ikea executive was later joined by Glenn Osaki, MSLGroup’s president for Asia, who posed a series of questions both to her and the audience — via a poll — on the topics raised in Hammar’s presentation.

Hammar had initially described the PR discipline as "extremely creative" due to not having the luxury of big media budgets. However, when Osaki asked delegates how PR was faring against advertising in terms of creativity, nearly 67 per cent said it still has a long way to go to catch up. Just 7 per cent said PR was more creative than other marketing disciplines.

Quizzed by Osaki how Ikea balanced its marketing investment, Hammar said she hoped the balance would shift from media buying to communications, which offered "better ROI but takes longer to prove". Osaki countered that ROI is becoming easier to measure from an advertising standpoint, but that "PR agencies need to do a better job of measuring their impact".

The audience poll supported his assertion, with more than 70 per cent of delegates saying their primary means of measurement was assessing clicks, hits and press clippings. "It’s a bit depressing that we’re still using typical methods of tracking ROI on our campaigns," Osaki admitted.

Social media opportunities

It used to be only nerds who tweeted, but now we all do. That was the opening sentiment from The Wall Street Journal Asia’s digital editor, Adam Najberg, who led a panel discussion on the opportunities around social media. Najberg questioned who should "own" a company’s social media account.

His panellists all brought a B2B perspective and agreed that with a variety of objectives, there needs to be a diversity of voices from within a company. Jill Tan, head of communications for Telstra, emphasised that "the whole organisation has to be committed". And Michael Wong, talent leader at Ernst & Young, also highlighted that social media "is not a one-off, it’s a longer-term journey".

Commenting specifically on social B2B, Munich Re’s head of communications Nikola Kemper stressed: "It’s not going to help you if you don’t have the content." Capturing the attention of business users meant having research, infographics or interview materials ready, and these needed to be relevant to the audiences’ business problems. Kemper said simply advertising a solution on social channels was not engagement; demonstrating capability was more to the point. Her advice was to use the "platform to extend the life of your thought leadership".

The panel also agreed that even in B2B, where contemptuous interchanges were relatively unlikely, it was important for organisations to understand that they were not in control of conversations. Wong counselled: "Listen to what the audience would like to talk about or would like to know." Companies could build off that to push their own agenda and engage with the right content.

Measuring effectiveness was a problem all panellists mentioned. Kemper said the "agency that comes up with good measurements will be on top", while Wong suggested that looking at comments and reposts was far more meaningful than simply counting "likes" because that was just "too easy to do" from a follower perspective.

Brand advocacy

A panel chaired by Ian Rumsby, Weber Shandwick’s regional chief strategy officer, addressed the issue of consumer loyalty, seen by virtually all brands as the ‘Holy Grail’. The group included Patricia Chua, head of corporate communications, Fidelity; Hina Kotecha, marketing director Asia-Pacific, Williams Lea and Tag Worldwide; Anthony Rose, VP of corporate affairs, Walmart; and Marita Rouhof, regional head of communications, AXA Asia.

Each gave their own unique perspective on the issue. Chua said the financial industry was highly regulated and exposed to the volatility of the markets, making customer loyalty "very difficult" to attain.

She said Fidelity used a ‘net promoters code’ — a systematic way of doing business that requires every level of the organisation to focus on the quality of customer and employee relationships.

Rose said his firm promoted brand loyalty by keeping its narrative simple. "Brand loyalty in Asia is mostly built on pricing. Anything between 35-50 per cent of customer loyalty is based only on pricing," he told the audience.

Panellists felt that CEOs should not assume that corporate vision trickled down the ranks automatically once enunciated at the board level. Rose told the audience a 20-page corporate manual prepared by Walmart for new hires had proved ineffective. "So we came up with a bingo game as a way of teaching staff. It contained all the key facts about the company," he said. "That was an instant hit."

A seat at the top table

In her session, Catherine Simmons, MD and head of Asia-Pacific government affairs at Citi, outlined the role that communications professionals play at the "top table". The more topics you are able to contribute ideas to, from branding and marketing to regulatory reform, "the safer your seat", she said.

"You’ll be expected to comment on more than just your own issues," she said. "In financial services, we talk about trying to get the Asian voice heard. They have a seat but are not using it."

Simmons also addressed the question of where the communications function should sit within an organisation. While she admitted she did not have a definite answer, she said it would be a mistake for it to be aligned with every business unit as this could reduce consistency. Some firms preferred the function to operate under the legal or compliance divisions in order to ensure clarity when conveying sensitive information.

"Compliance and legal are your best friends," she said. "I often get business saying, ‘You need to be aligned with us.’ I consult with everyone and the issues are [often the same]. But it’s important to show you’re aligned and haven’t just run off and done your own thing. I’d recommend having short-term aligned priorities you can demonstrate to business but also some longer term ones."

Be prepared

A session dealing with management of fictional crisis scenarios had panellists all in furrowed brows. Moderator Donough Foley, head of PR & government relations at Qantas, led his panel to discuss how to deal with a racy video involving staff from a fictional red/white/blue airline that had gone viral and out of control.

Featuring women prancing around and passengers spilling champagne, the fictional video received 100,000 fictional hits on Youtube, with many commentators highlighting the ‘blue’ aspect of the video.

Despite the video being officially removed, it continued to be shared and openly mocked.

In such a case with legal repercussions, Georgia Dawson, partner at Freshfields, said lawyers would want to be clear on who exactly was the client – the agency or the airline – in order to set up communications channels that were private and privileged.

Rachel Catanach, senior vice president cum senior partner and managing director at FleishmanHillard, said it was important to have a clear process of thought so communications with stakeholders could be withheld "until we have a clear sense of the chronology of things".

Indeed, the first rule of crisis management was preparedness, said Albert Chan, executive manager of external relations at Hong Kong Jockey Club.

During troubled times, one of the frustrations that Ray Rudowski, regional director of crisis planning and training at Edelman faces is that many situations are actually not crises. When these crisis-like "situations" erupt, there is a belief that things have to be done the headquarters way, even if it occured in a domestic market.

"We are only advisors," he said. "It is up to the client to ultimately take that advice. We can offer outcomes of what may happen if the issue is handled this way or other."

Talent: the eternal quest

Acquiring, nurturing and retaining top quality staff is the biggest challenge facing clients and agencies across the business, since time immemorial. HSBC, for one, invests "a lot" in technical and leadership skill development, and then translates that to a communications proposition for young executives, according to Fiona Gibb, regional head of communications of commercial banking at HSBC.

DFS is apparently another company that approaches talent management in an unorthodox fashion. Evan Lewis, vice president of public relations, event and corporate communications at DFS, said the company treated the communications team like a startup that trained employees in the "merchandising and marketing side of things apart from just communications".

However, several panellists expressed frustrations at the difficulty of retaining talented staff, something larger organisations did not inherently find easier.

"Being part of a giant holding company is like a blessing and curse at the same time," added Mariko Sanchanta, Asia-Pacific regional managing director of media at Burson-Marsteller.

"The communications function spends a lot of time engaging people in the business, but we still lose them," lamented Emma Dale, co-founder & managing director for Asia at Prospect. 

"We can have all these programmes in place, but each employee is responsible for their own career development," said Beth Smits, head of public affairs & communications for Asia Pacific at Swift, who also hosted the conference. That said, much work needs to be done at the leadership level, especially conducting difficult conversations about being transparent and open about performance, because "young people may have fabulous ideas that we haven’t even thought about", Smits added.

Rising stars give PR leaders an earful

Reject weak briefs, stop using age as an excuse for social media ignorance and provide young people with clear opportunities to advance not only their own careers but also societal goals.

Those were the key takeaways as a group of ‘Rising stars’ gave an assessment of what PR leaders should do to succeed and to retain young talent. Moderated by Andrew Kirk, managing director of Edelman Hong Kong and Taiwan, the panel included Agnes Agastia, communications manager for Opera Software; Elizabeth Fung, senior account executive with FleishmanHillard; Kitty Lau, marketing executive with Metrojet; and Alex Yang, communications manager for S&P Dow Jones Indices.

Referring to a poll question earlier in the day, Fung disagreed that creative talent was the industry’s most pressing need. "I was actually quite disappointed that MBAs only got 14 per cent of the vote," she said. "One of the greatest challenges that we are facing is lack of understanding of the business our clients are in."

Yang cited involvement in message formulation, not just dissemination, as critical for job satisfaction. He also stressed a clearly defined career path.

Fung wrapped up the day by noting that young people wanted to be free to respectfully argue for their opinions regardless of internal hierarchy and to see themselves as catalysts for social change.

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