Staff Reporters
Jun 7, 2017

PR360Asia puts activism under the spotlight

From farmer KOLs to trolls and crisis management, PR360Asia was a wide-ranging conference with multiple takeaways for industry leaders.

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The 2017 edition of PR360Asia, which took place yesterday in Hong Kong, focused on purpose and activism, and presented a wide range of viewpoints. This page contains summary reports of each session from the day, except for the first two, which we covered yesterday (see "PR360 kicks off activism and trust debate").

After the conference, the day ended with the gala awards presentation of the 2017 PR Awards Asia. Please see "PR Awards Asia 2017 winners announced" for a list of winners and photos.

Protecting identity against the trolls

  • Douglas White, director, public face and communications, Gay Games Hong Kong 2022
  • Ewan Ross, area director of greater China, Meltwater
  • Simeon Mellalieu, partner, client development, Asia Pacific, Ketchum
  • Moderator: Matthew Miller, online editor, Campaign Asia-Pacific

This session on how brands can manage social-media critics emphasized that risk managers really need to know their trolls. White noted that there are a wide range, who run the gamet from those who are ‘politely mean’ to "those who just like to stir sh*t” he said.  These are easier to handle than ‘nutters’ “who are always just a bit crazy”, since you never know what their true motivation is and they can disappear and return at random. But the most frightening trolls, White suggested, is a new breed of systematic trolls who leverage technology to isolate specific topics and make very specific attacks.

The biggest mistakes when dealing with trolls? Ross suggested that a big mistake is not having enough brand interaction on social media in the first place, since if you have plenty of good information already out there it lessens the impact of criticism, which stings more when there’s no alternative points of view presented.  Likewise, don’t be afraid to interact during an attack if warranted.

Another mistake, Ross suggested, is to treat troll attacks equally and not use technology to better understand who they are.  One troll might be followed by 100,000 people, another by 100.

Mellalieu agreed that context is key. The first focus should not be on how to make the attack go away, but on who the individual is. Brands have to beware of kneejerk responses that may feed into the disruption a troll wants, rather than rationally evaluating an attack, he said. 

Talk-ability trumps truth

  • Tarun Deo, managing director for Singapore and Southeast Asia, Golin

“Truth is having a moment of truth”, according to the company’s global research into relevance, which Deo presented. While nearly 100 percent of people believe an ideal brand should be trustworthy, essentially zero brands are actually meeting that ideal, Deo said.

Yet the research showed that in many sectors popularity (whether something is being talked about) trumps the trustworthiness of the information. Deo asked whether people have been so let down by brands, companies and categories that they are “moving on from truth”.

He quipped that while Golin does not recommend brands lie more to gain relevance, they do need to figure out how to “start telling solid truth that also moves the needle in the right direction.”

Deo noted consumer fatigue around traditional channels and the pre-eminence of truly engaging influencers. He also urged attendees to ask how well they really know the ‘tribes’ within their audiences: “We really need to delve into this further, because there are differences, and those differences will be the gold dust.” 

Does Public Relations need Public Relations?

  • Darren Burns, president, China chair, innovation and creativity, Weber Shandwick Asia Pacific
  • Eunice Cheng, director and head of public affairs, Hong Kong Applied Science and Technology Research Institute
  • Jon Walsh, head of global communications, Infiniti Motor Company
  • Chloé Reuter, Founder and CEO, Reuter Communication
  • Moderator: Olivia Parker, deputy editor, Campaign Asia-Pacific

The panelists engaged in a lively discussion of the perennial question of whether public relations should be called something else. Some argued that a change is overdue. Reuter, for example, said the term “public relations” has been ruined ever since the TV program Absolutely Fabulous. But others, notably Burns, argued that changing the name to something like ‘integrated communications’ is fine, but ultimately doesn’t matter—only providing value to clients does.

Burns further noted that “earned [media] is the new black”, which puts PR agencies in a good position as that’s their heritage. On top of that, he noted a “wave of innovation in PR” that’s in progress, with new tools created in Asia (notably China) being rolled out worldwide.

Reuter pointed to job applicants as evidence that a rebranding is needed. While openings with “PR” in the headline get few applicants, and unimpressive ones at that, job descriptions headlined with “integrated communication” get 100 solid applications, she said.

Walsh echoed the imperative of delivering value from a seat in the boardroom. Citing the recent United Airlines debacle as an example, he said that if PR does not have influence, things can end badly. Because United’s comms team reports to HR, the initial statement wrongly focused on the impact on team members, rather than the bloodied customer who was dragged from the plane.

Clients certainly don’t discriminate based on agency names, anymore, Cheng said. In her opinion they instead consider capabilities, including not only traditional media relations but also the ability to deliver innovative solutions, use KOLs effectively and reach audiences through digital means.

An underappreciated strength of an in-house PR team, Walsh noted, is being the eyes and ears of the company. Networks of contacts can provide the real scoop on major industry news, such as a change of leadership at a competitor company, he said.

PR, the traditional media and today’s multichannel ecosystem

  • Vincent Tsui, chief marketing officer, Next Media
  • Terence Yam, general manager, MSLGroup Hong Kong

Taking KOLs as their main focus, Yam and Tsui explained that this term now applies not simply to professional advisors, such as doctors or academics, but to a much broader range of people. The challenge for marketing and communications PRs is to leverage their power to deliver a brand’s message without looking like the brand has bought their opinion, said Yam. The pair noted two interesting upcoming KOL trends.

The first is the rise of ‘layman KOLs’, who don’t have a particular specialist skill or field. Tsui gave the examples of ‘Lowcostcosplayer’—a Thai man who recreates scenes from films or shows in deliberately cheap and funny ways—and ‘farmer KOLs’, specifically one group of farmers from a poor rural village in China. After Taobao introduced ecommerce to the village, showing the farmers how to get instant returns when customers ordered their produce online, one enterprising farmer asked his son to film live broadcasts of his work in the fields, which became hugely popular online.

Tsui’s key takeaway: “The future of KOL is that you don’t need to have a professional skill. You can do nonsense - but do it in a very persistent way. Do something stupid one or two times and people will laugh at you, but if you do it for over 10 years, people will start to respect you.”

The second trend the pair noted is the rise of elderly KOLs such as Tatiana Subbotina, a Russian woman in her sixties who makes widely-shared green screen videos of herself in unlikely locations, and ‘Baddiewinkle’, an 88-year-old American with 3.1 million Instagram followers. This is a great market, said Tsui, because “the elderly are more loyal to a particular thing they like”. They also have great potential as content providers, he said, given the many years of experience they can draw on.

When a communications crisis breaks: Best practices and case studies

  • Stephen Labaton, president, Finsbury
  • Interviewer: Robert Sawatzky, head of content, Campaign Asia-Pacific

“While one can’t predict every crisis imaginable, it’s easy to predict that there will be crises, and there are things that are not expensive that can be done ahead of time to ameliorate the damage,” said Labaton, who heads Finsbury’s crisis-management practice. 

A crisis can be a blip, or a defining moment, he said. Making the distinction between the two is critical, and perpetually challenging. 

Common mistakes include:

  • Having too many people, or not the correct people, in the room as decisions are being made. You need enough people to assess multiple perspectives and make decisions, but not so many that paralysis sets in.
  • Choosing a narrative prematurely. Saying more than you know can destroy credibility.
  • Tone deafness: “You can be on-the-record responsive without going further than the facts allow, and also show a level of empathy,” he said.
  • Failing to observe message discipline, which is vital not just for reputational purposes, but for legal purposes as well. 
  • Failing to realize that internal communications will be shared externally in any high-profile crisis.

Other advice Labaton imparted:

  • Think in advance about who the company can enlist to say things smartly on the company’s behalf.
  • Consider how competent top executives are when speaking candidly, and realize that while some situations demand the CEO speak, other situations don’t.
  • Use outside advisors, who can help in planning, by presenting a “panoply” of communications options, and by bridging the divide between what legal teams may want to say and what in-house communicators know the customer base needs to hear.

Trump tweets: How does a company deal with an attack from the president of the United States? Companies aren’t really worrying about this as much as they did when Trump was first elected. “We’ve reached the point where a growing number of people see an angry tweet from the president as a badge of honor,” he said, adding that no one has asked him how to get one—yet.

Behaviour Brands: the role of influence in activating them

  • Marion McDonald, chief strategy officer, Ogilvy Public Relations Asia-Pacific

Declaring that she is “bored with PR” as it’s conventionally practiced and envious of agencies that get to work on the full customer experience, McDonald led attendees through a brief history of where branding has been and where it’s going. 

Following an evolution from early trademark-based branding to the era of rational product branding to more emotional brand bonding (think jingles) to the trend toward cultural relevance in the last decade (think Dove), McDonald declared that brands now will be judged relevant based on the actions they take to fix problems in the world.

“It’s not what you buy anymore, it’s what you buy into,” she said.

Talking to “a roomful of people who say stuff” she said that “behavior brands do shit. They get stuff done. They’re makers. They create something of value, something that is useful.” That it turn, makes the PR conversation—about how to amplify that purpose—far more interesting.  

With a graphic of a squiggling sperm cell behind her, McDonald urged communicators to move beyond thinking about impressions—because like sperm, most of them miss their target.

The key thing about becoming a behaviour brand is taking action before you talk about it, McDonald admonished. While HSBC did three years of work to build LGBT-friendly policies before unveiling its Pride Lions last year, Pepsi recently faceplanted because it “raced to talk about purpose before having any action behind it, and ended up uniting the world in mockery of their new in-house content studio.”

PR, litigation and the new social media reality

  • Kevin Bowers, partner/solicitor advocate, Howse Williams Bowers
  • Charles Lankester, EVP, global reputation and risk management practice, Ruder Finn
  • Chair: Peter Shadbolt, editor, The Corporate Treasurer, Haymarket Media Group

The potential for fireworks between lawyers and communications advisors was quickly diffused by Bowers and Lankester, who advocated working together in any crisis to avoid risking a bungled response. Bowers cited an example from Hong Kong when the new airport didn’t open on time and a tribunal was held. Business leaders speaking to the press ended up contradicting what the lawyers were set to present to the tribunal. The mixed messages were a big part of what went wrong.

Bowers suggested both sides needed to get involved in a crisis where apologies are necessary. He suggested legal teams must be consulted on whether a public apology is necessary and what the ramifcations are. PR, he later suggested, has a strong role to play in the wording of the apology so as not to let it sound insincere.

Lankester agreed, positing that the biggest gaffes in the recent crises faced by United Airlines and British Airways concerned the inability of corporate leaders to speak as humans, instead issuing robotic messages about being “fully committed” (not to mention ‘re-accommodating’ passengers).

Both also agreed that companies need to come clean with the truth at the outset of a crisis, legally and reputationally. But that doesn’t mean rushing to issue a statement under pressure. The problem for BA, both Bowers and Lankester noted, was that it made statements about the cause of their technology failure based on assumptions, later proven false. Sometimes, saying less is better.

Lankester also stressed the importance of preparing for the worst case scenario, suggesting no one at PwC would ever imagine bungling such an important piece of work as the Oscars top award. “You must imagine: ‘What is our PwC envelope’“, he advised.

But the good news for brands is that if crises are handled correctly, brands can easily survive a large hit to their reputation as Samsung did with the Note 7. “My unscientific takeaway from 2017 is people move on really quick, ” added Lankester.

The talent crunch

  • Susie Bates, vice-president, human resources and talent, north Asia, Constituency Management Group
  • Benson Chao, corporate communications director, SCMP Publishers
  • Tino Fritsch, head of communications APAC, Thyssenkrupp
  • Anna Tehan, SVP, director corporate communications, Li & Fung
  • Moderator: Angelia Teo, head of Content Lab, Campaign Asia-Pacific

Teo kicked off the discussion about talent asking how many people in the room are currently hiring; around half of the 200 delegates raised their hands. Chao said that in addressing the lack of recruits, hiring managers need to think along the lines of the people they are looking to hire. These recruits want to work in “a joyful environment” and on “something bigger than themselves”, he said. “We have to be empathetic about what they need. Are we listening to them?”

Fritsch countered by saying that his biggest problem is not recruitment - “Asia has a lot of talent” - but retention. “In Singapore, after two years we see a hard stop - it’s either up or out. Money is usually not the point, its perspective. You have to give perspective to these young people.” Bates made the point that retention problems can be caused by lack of interest shown in the newest hires by senior management: a widespread issue, in her experience.

The panel agreed that companies also need to be aware of their “value proposition” because the younger generation entering the workforce today tends to take their company name as a personal brand. This means offering new hires a “work-life blend” - an update on the old ‘work-life balance’ term, according to Bates - conveying the authentic culture of the company and providing challenging opportunities. “The worst thing you can pitch to a millennial is that this job will be comfortable,” said Bates.

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