Fleishman Hillard’s Brian West on the PR talent shortage and crisis management in Asia

Brian West Like many areas with the marketing communications sector public relations in Asia suffers from a talent shortage. In this Q&A Brian West managing director of reputation management, Asia Pacific for Fleishman Hillard takes talent, the impact of social and mobile on public relations and crisis management. 

What do you see as the biggest challenges facing the public relations industry?

There are two significant challenges facing PR. The first is talent – finding people that possesses the tenacity, critical thinking/problem solving capacity and work ethic required to do the job.

These factors are the difference between being a successful leader in the PR profession and being just another PR practitioner. Companies need the skills and insight that we bring to the table – today we arrive at the table to not just ‘do media’ but to help companies engage with all their stakeholders, through all available platforms/mediums.

This brings us to our second biggest challenge. The entry to being a PR person is low and often the perception is that entry is based on our ability to pitch media. The reality is that today we are business advisers to the C-suite and to the boardroom.

Our ability to span all the stakeholders critical to a company, to view issues through the lens of these people and not just the company’s lens, means we now advise companies on the likely views and reactions of these stakeholders to any decision. Furthermore, we advise on how to directly engage, in an authentic two-way dialogue, and therefore influence these stakeholders.

This requires skills beyond just media.  We need to master psychology and sociology and bring logical, well considered and argued recommendations to advise on business issues.

How challenging is the PR talent situation in the region? Is there enough investment and discussion about the challenges facing the sector?

It is very challenging throughout the region. We all compete for a small talent pool – the good ones are in high demand and retention is not easy.

The main retention factor, in my opinion, is an organisation’s ability to provide a continuous learning environment.  Overall, the industry needs to get better at training people, getting them a good grounding in terms of hard skills and helping them to develop knowledge across industries and sectors.  From the talent’s point of view, compensation is just one part of it, the right leadership is the more important piece.

The leadership here I am talking about is beyond helping them hone their craft, it is answering these two key questions: are we helping them continue to grow professionally and personally?  Are we developing them as business people with PR as their craft?

From a client perspective do marketers and their CEOs in Asia recognise the importance of public relations? Is the industry being given ‘a seat at the board table’ for high level discussions?

Strategic PR people mostly now have a seat in the boardroom (in their own right and not as a subset of the marketing function). The situation has improved dramatically but there are still many organisations who do not fully appreciate and harness the power of PR.

It is now less about the brand (what a company says about itself) and what others say about it (reputation).  Is it an authentic company? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, something authentic is ‘based on fact; accurate or reliable’. But what if the recipient of this ‘authenticity’ doesn’t experience what they’ve been led to expect?

Fact and truth be damned. Best practice issue management is where organisations act proactively to engage key influencers and challenge and authentically engage their key stakeholders. This ensures that the goodwill and the ‘infrastructure’ is in place when organisations need to respond and manage a negative issue – ie. The company is given the benefit of the doubt. This is the role of today’s strategic PR leaders: Reputation Management.

Reputation, and the many elements that form it, are created through the interaction of an organisation and the individuals and groups that are affected by it.

All those affected stakeholders – whether customers, regulators, employees, investors, the media or the public at large – have their own experiences with a company and that create the lens through which they view their experiences with the organisation. Together expectations and experience create credibility.  This is where the PR leader ensures that reality remains the focus of the organisation.

How is social media and mobile redefining public relations in the region in your view?

Any misalignment between the constantly moving ecosystem of reputation and the more controlled environs of the brand is especially stark in a world where customers are able to share their actual experiences with greater speed, visibility and impact than ever before.

The medium has evolved and so must skillsets. At the crux of it, one of the other challenges for the industry is not the medium, it is in fact the dearth of people that understand how the different pieces work.

The strategic PR leader needs to know how all the moving pieces come together to deliver an authentic organisation to all its stakeholders and speed is a key challenge for organisations built on the traditional ‘centralised command and control’ approach.

Let’s take media: the “news cycle” is a thing of the past – responses to issues must now be developed in real time.

You’re a specialist in crisis management. Are clients in Asia responding fast enough to arising issues?

There have been five paradigm shifts in crisis communication management in the past five years, and Asia has been at the forefront of this because of its rapid adoption and high penetration of social media and the ubiquitous smartphone.

While most companies now have a crisis communication plan, they have not accounted for the paradigm shifts.  Crises no longer break, they tweet and many companies are only just starting to think about having 24/7 social listening tools. Today reputations are shaped, built and broken by interactions and opinions that stream in billions of bits per hour around the globe at the speed of light. Every decision an organisation makes is instantly seen by every audience as a demonstration of the organisation’s values and culture.

But what if a company has not built a crisis plan that allows it to respond in real time?  Silence is now demonstrating its values and culture?

The reality is that most company approval procedures have too many layers/approval requirements, meaning they are unable to respond quickly.  This is especially so when it is an organisation that crosses geographies: meaning socio/politico/cultural challenges, in addition to timezone challenges.

Furthermore, what if they have not built the infrastructure allowing them to respond immediately across all communication platforms and channels?  This is an investment that is not often understood until a company is in the middle of a crisis.


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