Thailand's economy remained sluggish for much of 2015 and a similar scenario is expected in 2016, but PR professionals are quietly optimistic about the state of the industry in the country as digital work increases, Thai brands seek to expand abroad and public affairs work increases.
Steve Vincent, managing director at Aziam Burson-Marstellar believes that the Thai PR market remains relatively stable, and that new business opportunities remain plentiful.
Digital PR in particular is becoming an integrated part of most Thai PR strategies and programmes and Vincent says there is a there is a clear shift to digital PR among the agency’s clients, especially FMCG and brand-driven clients, for which digital PR is part of almost every communications activation.
"In Thailand, Aziam Burson-Marsteller has been doing digital PR activations for almost seven years, working with online publications, several categories of bloggers, and key opinion leaders who are mainly on Facebook and Instagram," says Vincent. "We continue to focus on this area to develop other digital channels for more opportunities to maximize PR results."
The increasing move towards digital brings its own set of challenges. Vincent says that while connecting through digital platforms is easy to do, clients clients increasingly want to engage the digital community beyond simple exposure or the number of "likes" in a way that leads to tangible business results.
"The agency is developing more strategies to help its clients tap into digital opportunities that lead to a more meaningful outcome for their business," he adds.
The agency has identified growth in areas including media and crisis training programmes and simulations and Vincent believes there is a 'solid mix of opportunities' for both corporate and marketing clients doing integrated and digital PR campaigns, with increased emphasis on digital.
The focus on digital is not surprising. There are around 23.9 million internet users in Thailand, more than a third of the population, with most users in the younger age range, up to 35 years old.
We are Social’s Digital in 2016 report, released last month (January), revealed the dominance of mobile social media in Thailand, naming the country one of several ‘mobile first’ nations in Southeast Asia when it comes to internet and social media access.
Vero Public Relations has had a presence in Thailand since 2007, as well as other countries in South East Asia, including Vietnam and more recently Myanmar.
Investing in digital and social media has been key to the agency's growth thus far, with the result that about half of its business, says founder Brian Griffin, is now focused on digital and emerging technology.
Campaigns the agency has worked on include strengthening awareness of the Uber app through media, stakeholder relation programmes and online influencer activities,
"We have made a number of strategic bets in developing our business, which apply to the Thai market in general," he explains. "Vero combines all of the media relations and stakeholder engagement capabilities of a PR agency with the hard-core tech skills of a digital agency, giving clients all the marketing services they need under one roof. We’ve done this by investing in a team of creatives, designers, analytics professionals and becoming a Google partner agency capable of deploying search and display for client campaigns."
Another area Vero is betting on is the regionalization of the agency business in Southeast Asia. Griffin maintains that Vero is not only a Thai business; it is also a Vietnamese business and Myanmar business and the agency also carries out work in Cambodia and Laos. In the last year it has managed more than a dozen multi-market campaigns in Southeast Asia with Thailand as its hub, and Griffin sees demand for this type of regional service growing.
"One thing many people don’t realize is that Thai conglomerates are among the best, if not the best, at going regional," adds Griffin. "There are some very strong Thai companies that are expanding through the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries. They are doing this due to economic softness at home, but more importantly because of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). The regionalization of Southeast Asia presents enormous long term opportunity with a population of 600 million and a rapidly emerging middle class."
Kanpirom Ungpakorn is managing director at Hill & Knowlton Thailand, based in Bangkok. The agency was established in 1998 and has worked with clients including Uniqlo, Starbucks and Thai Union Frozen Products. Ungpakorn believes that as with other markets, Thailand is seeing convergence in the communications industry with a rise in importance of digital engagement.
"The lines between marketing, media buying, CRM and public relations agencies are blending and PR consultancies must develop expanded capabilities in order to effectively help brands engage with audiences on all platforms," she says. "At the same time, we also see brands starting to understand the importance of fully integrated communications programmes that include a 360-degree communications perspective from the beginning."
She adds that brands can no longer allow an agency to lead and expect the rest to follow; instead a holistic partnership from the initial stages of planning is critical for success.
The main challenge the agency is experiencing is a shortage of talent. Ungpakorn believes that opportunities in the communications industry have been growing at all levels and she is also seeing a trend of strong competition for talent by both in-house and agency teams.
In terms of where the opportunities lie for PR in Thailand, there is a growing interest in the public affairs practice area. While Ungpakorn maintains that education on this is still required, she says the benefits of a strategic public affairs platform cannot be underestimated as the agency contends with an ever-shifting public sector landscape.
"By employing a systematic approach to understanding stakeholder concerns and finding common ground with key opinion leaders, clients can affect change on issues that impact their business," she says. "The other area that has strong growth potential is internal communications.
“An increasing number of companies are also looking for services from professional consultants to help their corporate affairs or human resource teams with strategies and creative ideas to improve employee engagement."