Why PR in Thailand is still old school

Stuart Kelly, managing director of the Weber Shandwick Thailand, explains why the Thai PR industry is slow to catch on to digital

A tuk tuk driver gets his daily news in print, Thailand
A tuk tuk driver gets his daily news in print, Thailand

How would you describe the level of development for the PR industry in Thailand?

Thailand has been slower to embrace the "new world" of digital PR, which may surprise many considering the substantial growth and increased sophistication of Thailand’s consumer base and, in particular, their significant use of social media, even by global standards. The PR industry here still mostly relies on traditional PR methods such as crafting media releases and organising events, a focus on tactical rather than strategic offerings, and reliance on outdated "equivalent advertising" metrics to measure effectiveness.

What are the reasons for this focus on traditional PR?

It could be due to a couple of reasons. First, a high degree of localisation in Thailand’s economy, in which a smaller number of conglomerates dominate a market of mostly Thai speakers, has reduced the need to draw inspiration from  overseas best practice. This local focus and the central role of Thailand’s unique language and culture have reinforced an inherent conservatism. While the local Thai PR agencies have natural advantages, with strong local Thai client networks, this conservatism also means local offerings tend to focus on commoditised traditional PR, with less investment in higher-level skills or more sophisticated strategic counsel.

Stuart Kelly, managing director of the Weber Shandwick Thailand

That may change. Local agencies lack a reputation as change agents and do not have the breadth of expertise and access to global best practice to match the sophistication of the international agencies’ offerings, particularly in digital. As Thailand’s economy continues to modernise, I foresee large Thai conglomerates starting to look beyond their traditional local networks in the search for greater sophistication, particularly in digital and social media in which Thai consumers are already demonstrating a remarkable alacrity.

Does the Thai market have the right kind of talent for a more sophisticated PR offering?

Talent is the key challenge in Thailand for PR managers, as it is across much of Asia. For the most part, the local PR industry is still focused on traditional ‘old world’ PR tactics, which means the pool of candidates with higher expertise – such as digital, for example – is very tight. This is where the multinational agencies, with their focus on a broader and more sophisticated offering, really do feel the pinch in the hiring market.

Multinational agencies need to invest more heavily in training and development at all levels, and use this as a powerful incentive for candidates. The key is for a PR manager is to spend more time finding the ‘right kind of candidate’ who can thrive in a global agency environment, learns quickly, and has a long-term ambition to grow their career in PR. Agencies that can offer a stimulating environment that is rich in development opportunities and can offer a long-term career path will be rewarded. However, one needs to invest heavily in training and take more risks in favour of a candidate’s natural fit, personal attributes and motivation, rather than actual skills.

How do you see the PR market in Thailand developing over the next few years?

Historically, global PR agencies in Thailand tended to win the lion’s share of multinational accounts, with local agencies’ natural advantages holding sway among Thai companies. I think this may change – if it isn’t already – as Thai companies demand a greater level of sophistication to match their own rapidly modernising businesses.

This is particularly true in digital, but also in the overall quality and breadth of expertise across a wider spectrum of PR offerings. For example, the international trend towards strategic counsel rather than just tactical support will sooner or later be mirrored here in Thailand as local clients seek access to global best practice to help solve their increasingly more complex PR challenges.

Stuart Kelly was interviewed by Topaz Chan Online Editor, Asia Pacific at Weber Shandwick

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