Why corporate affairs firms are hiring senior talent from outside the industry

Law, banking, policy, and journalism are just some areas that corporate affairs agencies are looking towards to poach senior advisors. Major firms in the region tell us why.

(Shutterstock)
(Shutterstock)

“Corporate affairs is such a wide-ranging discipline that it demands an extraordinary, Swiss-Army-knife set of skills from any senior practitioner,” said a study by Andrews Partnership, a talent firm specialising in corporate affairs and investor relations. The study surveyed over 50 corporate affairs directors in APAC to understand the skills involved in making a successful practitioner and leader.

An excerpt from the report reads:

You have to know all the unique levers for influencing every type of stakeholder; as adept at policy analysis with a CEO as you are at personal persuasion with a factory worker. You have to have an eye for content and a grip on the channel landscape, all while lifting yourself well above tactical concerns. You have to understand your area of the business instinctively—but also everyone else’s too. And ultimately, you have to be able to manage the unmanageable—the dizzying constellation of inputs that shape a company’s reputation.

Katrina Andrews, managing partner at Andrews Partnership, told Campaign Asia-Pacific that credibility and connecting with people are some of the top skills required to become a successful corporate affairs leader.

“What has changed, in terms of hiring trends, is you have to be now able to ‘connect with people’ at an incredibly local level, not least because there is an absolute expectation now that those in key positions will possess local language skills and be able to produce communications sensitive to multiple culture and customs, and we see this developing from a talent perspective in markets including Indonesia and Malaysia,” said Andrews.

She added that corporate affairs is now a “sprawling hub” as it includes a broader set of roles and responsibilities, especially in the last decade. For example, firms such as Finsbury Glover Hering (FGH) and Sard Verbinnen are making talent moves by hiring a broader group of individuals that fit into these changes to the industry. These would include the appointment of lawyers or bankers and developing them internally.

One major corporate affairs network told Campaign Asia-Pacific on background that the recent hiring of a policy expert as an advisor is an example of value-adding from several perspectives. For instance, since the Hong Kong Stock Exchange began to mandate ESG reporting, the agency has seen an increase in demand for services not only around ESG reporting itself, but also on how to structure internal ESG processes as well as how to engage with external stakeholders such as regulators, industry and civic bodies, the media and the communities its clients operate in.

Plus, with the world’s attention currently focused on COP26, the agency has seen demand for insights to how China in particular will position itself in Glasgow. Therefore, its recent policy expert hire has proven a valuable resource for putting China’s climate goals and policies in context in terms of the implications for MNCs.

Deborah Hayden (pictured below), partner at FGH based in Tokyo, told Campaign Asia-Pacific that recruiting in Japan for agencies specialising in corporate and financial PR is notoriously difficult.

“Given the communications industry here is still in its infancy, the talent pool is extremely small— especially for the sort of talent we require at FGH,” said Hayden.

FGH in Japan looks for talent with a knowledge of financial markets and business in general who have the ability to interact with senior Japanese executives within its client firms, and who also have a sufficient command of English to be able to leverage the strength of its global network and connect with senior non-Japanese executives.

Therefore, for FGH, bringing in talent from the corporate world increases the level of trust clients have in using its services, as they might see that it has team members who understand the problems and issues they are dealing with, and importantly, are steeped in the Japanese corporate business culture which facilitates smooth communication. 

For example, FGH appointed Financial Times journalist Daniel Bogler as a senior advisor. Hayden said that Bogler has brought significant value to clients as they strive to develop a global content platform that resonates with overseas stakeholders. Bogler works with a number of clients acting as content editor, identifying and developing themes that will showcase their strengths to global audiences. According to Hayden, he has made himself indispensable to a number of Japanese clients.

And just recently, the agency named Keiichi Hotta as managing director in Tokyo. Hotta spent 30 years at MUFG Bank most recently as head of global human resources. Hotta told Campaign Asia-Pacific that having people outside the industry gives clients the perception that the agency can provide more holistic advice.

“As comms becomes more strategic and complex, the Japanese industry needs to respond appropriately, and by serving clients with a combination of seasoned PR professionals and talent from outside the industry allows us to respond with variety and depth of experience,” said Hotta.

“There is not enough talent out there to support the growth and ambition of our industry. As the comms industry grows and corporate Japan begins to seek help, this opens new opportunities for us. While there is the burden of training talent from outside the comms industry, I would like to believe good talent will catch up quickly and acquire the required knowledge and skill sets.”

Hayden concurs with her colleague in that the ‘burden’ of training talent from outside the industry is worth the effort considering the value that diverse skillsets and knowledge pools can add for clients.

“It can be challenging to train specialists from outside of the PR industry. However, good talent will catch up quickly and will soon take to our business, bringing additional perspectives to what we can offer our clients from their professional background,” said Hayden. “The old adage holds true—hire for culture and train for skills.”

While FGH has a number of internal training programmes, the majority of practical training happens on the job. Hayden added that good managers need to include new team members in all aspects of work and give them the freedom to handle tasks on their own, providing guidance when needed. 

Another agency that has become known for seeking talent outside the industry is APCO Worldwide, which has continually strengthened its International Advisory Council comprising more than 100 experts across politics, business, journalism, diplomacy, non-profit, and policy. These experts make up four sub-groups: corporate communication strategies; food; consumer products and retail; and global problem solvers and health advisory board.

According to the agency, each member offers clients “invaluable real-world knowledge” as they are individuals who understand the issues clients face because they have encountered similar opportunities and challenges in their own careers. APCO clients can choose to get counsel from individual members, or a select group of members with varying perspectives.

James Yi, managing director, Southeast Asia & Korea, at APCO Worldwide, told Campaign Asia-Pacific that clients are increasingly facing new and complex challenges. And to help them navigate those, the agency cannot approach the larger puzzle from only a comms perspective.

“Too often, comms is the last port of call, after change has already begun,” said Yi. “To make sure that we are giving clients the full benefit of early trendspotting, we have always relied on the perspectives of highly influential and well-connected individuals from many walks of life to guide our thinking.”

Therefore, Yi put together a team of specialists outside of the PR industry to help clients avoid certain blind spots. No matter how knowledgeable an expert may be on a particular subject, Yi said it is difficult to see the whole picture without a range of perspectives.

“When problem-solving, humans tend to fall into the trap of believing that their perspective is the absolute truth. It is important to avoid too much collective thinking by bringing in these individuals to challenge our approaches. Specialists can often deeply understand the complex issues clients face because they have encountered similar opportunities and challenges in their own careers,” said Yi.

APCO’s office in Singapore is made up of former professors, leaders of non-profit organisations and other experts who have been exercising the art of persuasion and rhetoric in their own fields for decades.

“It is a matter of channelling these abilities into agency skills," said Yi. "Happily, most are up for the challenge, and the nuts-and-bolts training is not too steep of a learning curve. That said, we have a few PR veterans on staff that have been incredible in sharing best practices and principles with our new recruits."

The agency has also developed APCO Impact, an advisory group aimed at addressing root causes, changing systems and moving towards a more regenerative, equitable future. This involves work around ESG roadmaps or understanding country and regional commitments to carbon neutrality. This group, according to Yi, is a response to clients’ demand to sharpen narratives and partnerships that can help drive sustainability and weave positive social impact into decision-making at all levels.

“All of our clients are facing resource constraints in one form or another, and to achieve some of our larger goals, we must make the sum of the parts equal dramatically more than the whole,” said Yi.

“What I mean by this is that there was a time when public-private partnerships were once a ‘nice to have’, often formed around specific long-term corporate or UN goals. However, the need now is for immediate and practical partnerships that can multiply our collective impact to address critical needs in people’s lives.”

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