Arun Sudhaman 25 Sep 2015 // 3:40PM GMT
Our fourth Asia-Pacific conference, which took place in Hong Kong earlier this week, followed in the footsteps of last year's Beijing event, attracting a full house and some heavy-hitting speakers to the Island Shangri-La.
As usual, there was plenty to ponder, thanks to insights from senior executives at Fonterra, Microsoft, Li & Fung, AIA, J&J, Edelman, Marico, Alcon, MSLGroup and many more. Here are five learnings that are of particular importance to PR executives as they attempt to navigate a fast-changing industry in Asia-Pacific.
1. PR and technology are colliding
This is a theme we have examined before, as new technologies reshape how people behave and how they interact with organisations. Much of these conversations, however, have focused on how technology can improve marketing and communications tactics. In a wide-ranging keynote, Microsoft Asia-Pacific senior communications director Andrew Pickup instead took a refreshingly macro-view of tech trends, zeroing in on four areas where new technology is poised to redefine how people work.
For example, Pickup pointed to several examples of how new technologies are changing basic behaviour — mobile apps that can learn and respond to your habits, or natural interfaces that remove the need for a keyboard and mouse. "This is an inflection point," said Pickup. "Today you work for the technology, in the future the technology works for you."
The implications for public relations pros are significant, not least in terms of how they work, but in the tools they can deploy to improve their campaigns. "It's an amazing opportunity to personalise and create content, said Pickup. "With all of that data, you have better measurement — the holy grail of PR."
Weber Shandwick's Austin Powers struck a similar note during his discussion of how advances in creative technology are moving product and brand communication towards a more non-linear form. Your new team, he suggested, requires a creative technologist, VFX artist, game developer, videographer, writer and producer.
2. But technology requires trust
Pickup was quick to admit, though, that all of this "delightful" technology counts for little if people don't trust it, particularly amid widespread concerns over privacy and security. It was a theme that had been explored in detail during the day's opening session, when a panel led by Edelman APACMEA president David Brain explored how innovated can be better communicated.
That it needs to be better communicated is because of Trust Barometer research revealing people are sceptical of rapid technological innovation, often seeing it as another way for companies to simply make more money. 69% believe innovation should benefit society as a whole but two-thirds believe that companies are innovating just to make more money. And 87% expressed concerns about buying new products because of issues such as privacy, security, and environmental impact.
In response, Spark New Zealand corporate relations GM Andrew Pirie advised communicators that "transparency is the key driver of trust." Ironically, perhaps, Pirie used Uber as an example of a company that deploys digital and social media to provide far more information to passengers—including individual driver ratings—than more traditional brands.
A more collaborative approach, added AIA head of innovation Steve Monaghan, can also help address a backlash from consumers and regulators. In the banking sector, he said, that means companies like AIA need to work more closely with regulators. In general, added Pirie, companies need to build a coalition of support for innovative products.
3. Innovation needs to be sustainable
Li & Fung global community engagement director Karen Seymour added another concern about rapid technological innovation to the mix, when she pointed out that "sustainable innovation" is not rewarded often enough. Seymour noted that companies still view innovation largely in terms of pure profit-making potential, without bearing in mind the environmental and societal impact.
An example of a company that doesn't, said Seymour, is Puma, which has replaced traditional cardboard shoe packaging with an eco-friendly bag. As another example, Seymour noted that financial institutions could introduce sustainability criteria for their moneylending and investment activity.
"It's really easy for companies these days to focus on profit and not doing the right thing," said Seymour. "There could be more rewards for organisations that do focus on doing the right thing, whether it's through product design, environmental or community impact. That could be through government regulation to create a more level playing field — if you're trying to do the right thing it might cost you more."
4. CSR starts inside
Taking the CSR conversation further, Seymour noted that the big change involves the shift from a focus on external audience to a greater emphasis on employee engagement. Younger employees in particular are more interested in working for a caring company, said Seymour, citing research from Deloitte that found 70% of millennials want to work for a company with a purpose.
"We want people to think about how to make a difference in their daily lives, and think about sustainability and how they can make a difference in the community," said Seymour.
That is part of the progression of CSR, said Cliff Choi of the the Hong Kong Council of Social Services, towards companies viewing CSR as part of their business. "Companies today see their own limitations, and they understand the benefit of collaborating with other companies."
Even so, measurement remains the biggest challenge. "Companies want to see an impact," said Choi. "The clearer the impact, the more willing they will be to invest. We are still struggling to find the right measurement tool."
5. We live in an era of great expectations
Your average PR person could be forgiven for feeling a little intimidated by all of these changes. It has been barely a decade since the advent of social media, and even less since the iPhone revolutionsed the mobile device. An industry that lives and dies on its ability to understand consumer behaviour is being asked to change fast, often through the cumbersome business of retooling legacy structures and models to incorporate a dizzying array of new skills.
That much was brought home during a conversation on Tomorrow's Brands led by MSLGroup's Narendra Nag, feautring Marico's Heena Kanal and Alcon's Deborah Chiang. When asked what she looked for in her PR executive, Chiang reeled of a list of qualities, including medical knowledge, patient insight, commercial skills and media influence.
"Those are Dickensian expectations," quipped Nag. He is not wrong. Throw in the way that consumer expectations of companies have similarly pivoted, and it becomes clear that we are living in an era of heightened expectations. How the PR industry responds to these will likely determine its ability to capitalise on today's rapid pace of innovation.