Brands should care a lot more about internal comms
Too many companies take internal communications for granted, assuming that as their employees work for them they’re already on board the 'brand express'. But companies have to realise that they “pay employees to do their job, not to be brand ambassadors,” pointed out Linda Yan, external affairs director with Mead Johnson Nutrition.
The truth is, a company’s employees are often the most cynical and the hardest to engage, so if companies don’t make an effort they run the risk of having customers interact with poor brand spokespeople.
Unfortunately, it’s often hard for communications departments to secure the funds needed to run even an internal publication, properly, said Luca Deplano, VP of brand communications with Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts. “The view is, why are we paying? We should just write it ourselves," Deplano said. "They underestimate how important it is to have communications your employees engage with and are proud of.”
'Repetition never spoils the prayer'
Tempting as it is to bounce from idea to idea, the truth is that it’s far more effective when a brand holds to the same ideals and idea for years, said Harold Li, who handles communications for Uber across Greater China. “When I was in an agency, I was always keen to pitch new campaigns, new ideas," he said. "It was fun and exciting. But really it makes more sense, if you want to take people with you to a destination, you need to repeat it to them over and over again.”
The CEO of LinkedIn, Jeff Weiner, is known for repeating LinkedIn’s mission statement “to connect the world’s professionals to enable them to be more productive and successful”, said Li. “When he was asked when he’d please stop doing this because it’s really annoying, Weiner said, ‘When people stop reacting with surprise’."
To bring the example home, Li talked about the launch of UberPool last year and how no one at the company has stopped talking about it since, at every opportunity. “It’s an unrelenting message, and it’s getting really boring for Uber employees, but you have to remind them that we can only stop talking about it when people stop being surprised.”
Different social media strokes for different folks
It's hard to form hard and fast rules when it comes to social media, as brands vary wildly in their stages and approaches. Harbour City Estates, for example, is experimenting with Periscope, said its assistant general manager of marketing, Karen Tam.
HSBC on the other hand, is still in the process of changing the mindset of corporate communications within the brand, according to Adam Harper, head of communications. Harper added that the bank may need to consider “telling stories that aren’t even directly related to the HSBC” but that speak to the values and stories that hold true to HSBC. Currently HSBC isn’t active on social media.
“We don’t have a Facebook page," he said. "Before we get into these exciting new platforms we need to have the right mindset internally."
Langham Hospitality Group on the other hand, is figuring out how to work with online key opinion leaders. “Everyone thinks they’re an influencer and some try and blackmail you with a bad TripAdvisor review,” said Vivienne Gan, the company's vice-president of public relations. “They’ll tell you they have a blog, a Twitter account, 500 followers, and ask for the best suite in the hotel.”
Gan said the problem is that you can’t just laugh at them. “You need to handle them carefully and strategically,” Gan added. “Now when we launch something we put it on our own social media, and the media notices. We still send press releases, but you need to own your own conversation too.”
The takeaways: PR professionals need to test new technologies in their communication plans, create the right communications culture and mindset for stakeholders internally, and finally, own a conversation on social media and digital so as not be at the constant mercy of someone else’s.
To achieve C-suite buy in, have numbers and use opportunities
If the communications function wants the trust and the support of the C-Suite, it has to work earn it. “It’s up to you to maintain good relationships and communicate clearly why, for example, you’re choosing one channel over another,” said Anna Choi, head of strategy and communications at Siemens.
It helps to understand how the C-suite views communications in the first place, as it may have terrible impressions of what the department does, pointed out Genevieve Hilton, head of external communications for Asia-Pacific at BASF. “Just to share an informal study I did, I asked what movies and books they prefer and found this: Action movies portray communications professionals as morons. Science fiction tends to do a much better job at portraying what we do. So ask your C-suite executives what they read, because it influences how they think.”
The winning approach for Andrew Pickup, senior director of communications for Microsoft Asia, is to get in the door, and then prove value. “All the departments show up with numbers, charts…eye candy," he said. "You can’t just rock up and say, ‘Oh, I’m in the business of influence.' Numbers get you in the door.”
But it’s what you do after that keeps you in the boardroom, he added later. “It’s how you handle the other two C’s—crisis and change. When those are on hand, kick down the door to the boardroom and stride proudly in.”
Even committed, well-meaning partners have to work at their relationships
A lively panel that pitted representatives from two brands 'against' two from agencies generated a fabulous list of woes but unsurprisingly failed to solve the tension between the two sides. Scope creep, interminable pitches, incoherent briefs, ridiculous timelines, over-promising, over-servicing, senior agency executives who pitch and then disappear forever...the listing of conflict points could have continued all afternoon. Catherine Feliciano-Chon of boutique agency CatchOn & Co, colourfully lamented a plague of "short-termism", saying, "We don't have the courtship period to decide whether we want to go to bed together."
All of the panelists purported to be honourable and straight-dealing, yet all had horror stories to cite, and some even admitted to situations where they could have treated their partners better. All of which simply proves that there's no magic bullet. Sean Rach, CMO for Prudential, returned repeatedly to old-fashioned concepts of client service, including regular face-to-face (not email or chat) contact between the parties and an effort by the agency to truly understand the client's business issues. Jacinta Reddan, marcomm head for PineBridge Investments, also stressed the importance of open communication. When trust exists, "the client contact is often your greatest ally," she told the agency people present. "We're in there fighting the good fight", going to bat for valued agency partners.
Companies are coming to terms with 'Millennial' talent
While they seemed to agree that there's really no such thing as a "species" known as Millennials, the participants in the day's final panel discussion nonetheless spent a good deal of time explaining how they have adjusted to help them attract and retain today's young people.
Mostly—but not entirely—avoiding unfair stereotypes such as the famously short attention spans of today's youth, the in-house and agency panelists discussed measures ranging from increased training to simply redefining what "retention" means. "As an agency we have had to recalibrate what success is in terms of retaining young people," said Matthew Lackie, APAC EVP with WE Worldwide. "Maybe two years is success, and even if that person leaves, maybe they'll come back." Lackie also stressed the importance of immersive training opportunities. Luisa Megale, Asia communications VP for American Express, added that conspicuously labeling training experiences as training experiences is critical—so young employees don't miss the fact that they're receiving it. Likewise, Fairil Yeo, APAC head of client engagement for Lewis, said he goes out of his way to remind employees that they're getting personal gains, such as professional recommendations, out of their achievements.
Reputation-building funds don't come easy, even for P&G
P&G's corporate communications department is seen as a cost-centre, so here are some ways Rene Co, VP of communications at Procter & Gamble China, maximises his company's reputation without using up the department's budget.
First, he rides on the marketing assets created for the compay's product brands, such as SK-II, Ariel and Pantene. “For example, for every ad that our product brand puts on air, we use the last second to work in the P&G logo to increase the association with the parent brand to make it win-win for all."
Also, he firmly believes in running an always-on owned media strategy, "so you don't have to rely on earned media to tell your story." Besides P&G’s social-media accounts on Weibo and WeChat, Co also uses Youku and Tencent, which he calls the “P&G Cinema”, and Baidu—the “P&G Encyclopedia”.
Fight for your corner
The toughest part of the job of American Express’ VP of public affairs and communications Fritz Quinn is not managing the cultural differences in each Asian market, but “to interpret that for folks back in the States and educate them”.
“The US guys don’t know what’s going on,” he said, and he had the choice to either take a ‘what they don’t know doesn’t hurt them’ approach, or under-communicate and get into trouble in the middle of the night.
Peko Wan, head of PR and communications for Asia at Opera Software, said it's worth arguing with gobal for more flexibility for each region to localise their messenging. “In the past we had a campaign called Off The Wall, which was about extreme sports. The global HQ in Norway wanted us to push it in Asia but did not realise it won’t resonate with the youth, in Indonesia for instance, because extreme sports are not part of their lives."
It's incumbent on local teams to also protect the brand against assumptions made from more remote teams. Things that are appropriate in Hong Kong may not work China. "Even things as small as subtitles," warned Quinn. Therefore, prioritise budgets for localisation and be prepared to jump onto any crisis if it happens, he said.