Until recently, corporate communications executives based in Asia often like they were treated as ‘poor relation’ of their counterparts based in New York or London. Whether it was when doing a conference call at 2:00 am or seeking a ‘sign off’ from head office on a local campaign PR corp comm work in Asia has always been viewed as being something of a second rank in the larger scheme of things. Well…not anymore.
Over the 3 years, since setting up VMA Group Asia-Pacific, I’ve been fortunate to interview, host breakfasts with, discuss and debate communications with over 200 heads of comms based throughout Asia and the feedback I am getting is that the landscape has changed. There is still the knotty issue of keeping corporate or brand message in alignment with the (typically) western head office but there is now an increasing emphasis on how to communicate across difficult cultures and nationalities. And that means adding a bit of that local flavour into the group message.
There are also, off course, resource constraints to deal with. For many businesses undergoing rapid growth, the organisational structure can hardly keep up. It is very difficult to build clear structures and establish clear processes when a business is growing so quickly. Needs are always very immediate, which prevents the planning and implementation of real long-term strategies. Communications professionals in Asia are often managing tactics more than strategies.
The power balance shifts
There is increasing recognition within western firms that the old "one-size-fits-all" approach has reached its limits. We are therefore seeing a shift in reporting lines. Regional offices in Asia are being empowered to make their own decisions without having to constantly revert back to the head office – usually based somewhere in the West. This is particularly evident in the function of PR and media relations, where quick responses and tactical decisions are required.
When hiring for corporate communication roles, Asian franchises of global MNCs are increasingly looking for candidates with global experience, but with local knowledge. Entire corp comm functions, covering both internal and external comms, are being set up locally. This is a far cry from the times when the communications function would be handled from the head office with maybe a token local "support".
The communications industry is certainly flourishing in Asia and Universities here are now offering internal communications as a study module. But there remains a shortage of communications talent. That is because the function is still new, the market is tight and the requirements are high. In Asia Pacific Mandarin proficiency is as much in demand as global exposure – often a rare combination. Certainly within internal communications, there seems to be an emphasis on tactical delivery rather than strategic counsel. A strong local team is required to monitor, assess and consider the specific cultural and communications situation, for example: what will create a scandal? What decision will impact negatively among employees?
Cultural differences in Asia are as wide as any. Indian corp comm professionals are often as clueless about Chinese cultural nuances as their western counterparts, for example. The ‘one size fits all’ model certainly doesn’t apply here. Consider the sheer numbers of different local languages, scripts, ethnic groups, religions and lifestyles the communication has to be set in local cultural context to be effective.
The diversity of traditional media in different countries is staggering. Many corp comm bosses I know have a hard time grasping how much Chinese Mainland media differs from HK media. For example, it is almost customary to distribute ‘red packets’ to journalists at press conferences in Mainland China as a token of appreciation. But doing the same in Hong Kong is would be a PR disaster. Journalists in Hong Kong would be appalled by that gesture.
Asia is demonstrating one of the fastest adoptions to social media despite patchy connectivity across many countries. Smartphone users in Indonesia and China, for instance, show a distinct passion for using new tools, apps and audio-visual communication. Weibo (China’s answer to Twitter) has been a runaway success and is leading innovation in mobile commerce. Some of these are local platforms and their use is far removed from what is happening in the West. It is imperitive, therefore for comms pros to keep their ears to the ground.
Geopolitical shocks can often have a direct impact on business in Asia. Despite robust inter-regional trade the continent is far from becoming a harmonized single market economic system. Political sensitivities, territorial disputes and ethno-religious conflicts often have tendency to interrupt the business of communication in Asia in unpredictable ways. Handling PR campaigns in Asia even at the best of times from New York and London is difficult let alone during times of rising tension between nations and/or communities.
Corp comm leaders in Asia Pacific are increasingly feeling the strain of not only managing their local markets but also their global colleagues. For many global organisations reconciling communication gaps that occur due to cultural differences is a constant struggle. The refrain that I get to hear most is -- "it’s not what you say, but how you say it". But there are some who have got it right. My favourite example is that of a big aviation industry giant that recognised the nature of close filial ties in Chinese culture and used it to win PR brownies. Its local initiative saw country managers calling the parents of high performing employees to congratulate them on their child’s performance. They also provided dinner vouchers to these employees, so they could take their whole family out for dinner - raising morale and a sense of ‘pride’ in their work.
Success in Asia
Asia cannot and should not be viewed as one continent. The communication strategy for Asia has to be country-specific. Lumping 3.9 billion people together and labeling them "Asian" is silly. Each country has a unique culture. Indonesia alone has 700 completely distinct languages. Doing feedbacks and surveys need considerable care and diligence as cultural nuances makes even a "yes" mean different things to different people. Cultural training is the key to bringing communication in Asia to the next level. Expatriate communications pros who are posted to Asian countries need to be very receptive to this idea. Cultural sensitivity and knowledge should become a key competence for the next generation of communicators in Asia.
For some global companies, Asia may not be seen as a shining example of effective communications at the moment. But given the growth dynamics of the continent, investment in communication channels will surely be recognised as contributing to business success; and with more Asian universities accepting cross-cultural intakes, and more Asians moving across borders, Asia will, in due course, be more easily understood and accessible to all who want to tap into and leverage its markets.