Two Japanese PR outfits are launching an initiative that aims to provide a more robust selection of skilled PR freelancers to the industry by providing best-practice guidance and learning opportunities.
The new service, called Scale PR Competency, is a joint undertaking between Honda Office, a company launched by former Blue Current MD Tetsuya Honda last year, and Vector, a large Tokyo-based agency. According to Honda, it is inspired by a rise in the number of freelance PR practitioners in Japan and lack of educational resources and consistency in the sector.
The central component is a database of freelancers, who can sign up free of charge for a learning programme and subsequent referrals to paying clients. The programme is based on a competency model that Honda developed based on his own experience and input from peers. It consists of five fundamentals he says are central to effective PR: ibeing able to relate to multiple stakeholders; being a spokesperson; social prescience and forecasting ability; narrative strength; and executional flexibility.
The syllabus is to be taught over six months in a common space at Vector’s headquarters by paid "professors"—senior PR professionals and marketers ranging from Honda himself to Shiseido CMO Daisuke Otobe. The initial round is set to begin in April.
Honda said the Japanese PR industry suffers from a lack of robust education due to the absence of such a competency model. "You can learn technical things like how to approach the media and write a press release, but there’s no best practice standard," he said. Facilities offered by institutions such as the Graduate School of Information and Communication, which launched in 2017, are "good but not enough", he said.
The service will generate revenue through talent matching: client companies pay a monthly fee dependent on the scope of a project in return for a recommendation as to suitable freelance practitioners. Honda said companies are often unable to judge PR people’s abilities, and as a result suffer from misalignment.
"You might need someone who can do corporate communications but what you end up with is more of a consumer marketing person," Honda said. While he hopes the freelancers in the database will be stronger after the teaching programme, the matching service takes effect from when they sign up.
Existing platforms such as Crowdworks enable connections between freelancers and potential clients in Japan across a range of sectors, but do not provide quality control or direct ‘matchmaking’.
Asked how he plans to guard against the presence of wholly untalented freelancers in the system, Honda said applicants would undergo a screening process including interviews before being admitted. He added: "We don’t expect everyone to be perfect thanks to this competency, but at least we’ll be able to track their strengths and weaknesses."
He did not name clients but said that a sales team from Vector had been approaching potential companies including startups.
Honda said since he launched his own company he had received numerous requests to recommend individual practitioners. He said freelancers themselves were looking for ways to become "more professional" and justify higher fees for their work.
An independent PR operator who Campaign spoke to in Tokyo agreed that young PR professionals would benefit from more of a support system. Having worked at an agency herself, she said many would like to break out of the agency environment due to an overload of clients and an inability to provide depth of service to any single account. Servicing 12 clients at a time was not unusual, she said. At the same time, would-be entrepreneurs are deterred by the risks involved in going it alone and absence of a steady stream of income. For that reason, she was doubtful that the ranks of freelancers in Japan are currently growing.
Still, Honda said the demand is there. "Clients want more flexibility," he said, noting that enlisting an agency for a project, while sometimes justified, can be unnecessarily costly. An in-house communications manager at a multinational company in Tokyo, who did not wish to be named, said she would welcome a platform that provided access to high-quality individual service providers not just in the field of traditional PR but also areas such as social media and marketing.
"I think having more freelance people in the industry is good, but my concern is that without this kind of system it won’t be sustainable," Honda said. "Young people gradually go back to the 'dark side' again. Their growth is stopped by a lack of education and they find they need to compromise by taking jobs they don’t want in order to survive. Clients can’t evaluate them, so it all shrivels up. We need to avoid [that happening]."
A version of this article first appeared on Campaign Asia.