PR360 kicks off activism and trust debate

More than 200 delegates participated in Campaign Asia-Pacific's PR conference, which explored the overall theme of brand activation and purpose.

(L-R) Robert Sawatzky, Rachel Catanach, Tricia Weener, and Ross Rowbury
(L-R) Robert Sawatzky, Rachel Catanach, Tricia Weener, and Ross Rowbury

HONG KONG: A lively debate on the role of activist brands in an age of declining trust launched this year’s PR360 conference in Hong Kong.

The event’s first panel, moderated by Robert Sawatzky, Campaign Asia-Pacific head of content, saw industry experts take on the issue of trust in the PR industry and what brands are doing do address its decline.

Rachel Catanach, president and senior partner for Greater China at FleishmanHillard, said China has witnessed a rise in consumer activism in the last few years, which was evident over the United Airlines crisis when it was thought David Dao, the victim, was Chinese, not Vietnamese.

"Not only did its share price drop 4%, but the active review of the situation by the Chinese was enormous—the video was watched by 750 million people in two days," she said. "The middle-class Chinese need to be taken seriously."

Tricia Weener, global head of marketing for commercial banking at HSBC, spoke about her experience of rebuilding consumer trust in banks following the financial crisis.

"It had a significant impact on the trust," she said. "Some of the regulations post-crisis are having an impact on the business we do these days."

This in turn is having an impact on customer experience, she said, and the challenge is to communicate that these regulations are there to protect consumers against money laundering and cyberattacks.

"One of our jobs is to educate our customers, and a lot of what we do now is explain why we’re doing what we’re doing," Weener said.

Ross Rowbury, president and CEO of Edelman Japan, said he has seen a decline in consumer trust in Japan due to two factors.

"The driver is a fall in trust in government; government can no longer deliver in terms of solving the problems of society because they have just become far too complex," he said. "At same time, when consumers look at products, we all realize that there’s not a huge difference between products now; our phones all look the same and basically do the same thing."

Asked how brands can make sure they are not presenting a false message, Weener told the conference about the HSBC Pride Lions campaign in support of the LBGT community in Hong Kong. She said it was "a very brave move" for a bank like HSBC to make a statement about LGBT rights, and it was critical for authenticity that the bank had done everything in its power to make changes internally, whether in terms of insurance products or talking about "Mr/Ms" when consumers were applying for products. Despite the preparation, she said, HSBC still did not anticipate the response.

"The main part was the protest, initiated almost immediately. I think we were very brave in holding our nerve on that," Weener said. "We held our nerve because it was something we absolutely believe in—rights, whether diversity or gay rights."

Rowbury added that HSBC’s campaign drives home the ability business has to drive change when it puts its mind to it.

"Businesses are forcing major societal change. I think consumers want brands to stand up for them at times when it’s not easy for bands to stand up for them. For brands, purpose is the business model," he said.

In the second presentation of the day, Rene Co, head of communications at Procter & Gamble China, told delegates about two of P&G’s longest-running CSR programs, Project Hope in China, now in its 21st year, and the Six Minutes, Protect a Life cancer-prevention program in Taiwan, now in its 23rd year.

"We need to talk about longevity," said Co, as an introduction. "Only when a program can stand the test of time, can you really make an impact on your audience. A child’s education, for example, cannot happen overnight, it takes years."

Co told the audience about Project Hope, which aims to give children in the rural countryside access to education. Starting in 1996, with the goal of building 200 schools by 2010, it surpassed expectations with 207 schools in China, and P&G is actively involved in their management.

Six Minutes to Protect a Life was started on the realization that in 1994, the number one killer of women in Taiwan was cervical cancer, but with early discovery, the recovery rate is very high. In 2004, the program evolved to cover breast-cancer screening and has been tapping into the power of celebrities and KOLs, as well as integrating local culture.

Co said the key to effective CSR was "staying in tune with the evolving needs of our target and cause," and innovating to address those needs.

"You have to make your leaders internally understand the importance of these programs and why they need to run long-term," he said. 

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