For many senior managers the most critical challenges they face are internal to their business. They need to quantify the value of their function, while responding to the industry shifts and the regional differences arising in Asia Pacific markets
3.1. Internal Perception
One of the critical issues confronting management-level practitioners is the need to effectively lobby for the communications and corporate affairs function at a time when business leaders are encouraging their business units to compete for budgets.
While attitudes differ, especially between established global MNCs and newer and less international Asian operators, management consensus on the need for well-resourced communications functions appears to be growing. One senior practitioner says: “We are viewed as close and trusted advisers. Among our leadership there is a very mature and sophisticated appreciation of the value of communications. We have a high level of engagement and support for the work we do.”
Another ongoing challenge involves engaging with areas of the business that don’t understand the value of communications to explain what the function can contribute. “Many think communications is sending emails or distributing press releases. There are lots of hurdles to cross in educating some people within the business,” says a Hong Kong based frontline manager in the investment industry.
An agency leader also suggests that some clients are adopting a “digital first and always” approach, and need to be advised to pursue traditional media or stakeholder engagement strategies rather than default to digital.
3.2. English Proficiency and Language
Many of the shortcomings identified during the interviews are of the “bread-and-butter” variety – most notably writing and editorial skills, English capability and cultural understanding. Basic writing skills, which are increasingly important given the sheer volume of content generation now required, are a cause of concern for many managers. “In marketing we are moving away from being the people who produce brochures to a team which gives good marketing strategy and who have cross-functional capabilities. With online marketing, most marketers now need to be able to write. If I find someone who can write, I can train them to be a marketer. But a marketer who can’t write is very different,” says one departmental head.
Despite generally high levels of English among most senior practitioners in Asia Pacific, concerns exist that too much senior leadership time is spent on basic tasks such as bringing communications and marketing materials up to the required standards of English.
Says another in-house Communications Director: “For media work, for internal communications, for web content, for the intranet, content generation is important so everyone needs to write. It’s a problem across the regional team and as we move to digital, it’s going to become even more of a problem.”
How to strike the balance between global and local – in this situation English and domestic language content – is also an issue highlighted by several practitioners. One senior industry representative says there are simply too many disconnects between global messaging and local messaging. This results from a failure to develop truly bilingual communications functions. Some businesses are relying too heavily on local language in some markets, and some are relying too much on English in others.
Given the rise of markets such as China, however, it is not surprising that respondents increasingly cite a lack of Chinese language expertise as a growing area of concern. “Some of our good strategic thinkers may have been educated in the West and, though they are Chinese nationals, their language skills may not be as good as those who went to local schools,” says one interviewee.
3.3. Global Versus Local
Determining what resources to put into international as opposed to domestic communications is becoming an increasingly important calculation confronting communications leaders. “For me personally, I need to get the right resource balance. The Communications Director’s role in this region is to be the bridge between the mother ship and the region and to ensure the resource balance is right,” says one senior representative.
The drive towards localisation is continuing. Many expatriate managers posted from overseas have in recent years either moved to local contracts, accepted return postings or, in some cases, parted company with their long-term employers to stay in the region. The perceived wisdom is that in sensitive public-facing roles, such as government relations or the in-country consultancy head position, a local figure is required. While this trend appears strongly embedded, one senior practitioner says he has seen “foreigners leaving and foreigners coming back” over the past two decades. “It’s really a matter of putting the right teams together for the right clients. We need to be largely local in the local markets but we need people with connecting abilities at the regional and global level. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what kind of person you are, as long as you are able to connect people,” he says.
3.4. From Tactical to Strategic
While intense pressure exists for communications and marketing departments to become full-blown creative content factories, some practitioners believe this remains a distant prospect. Given the low-level resources made available to her, one Communications Director regrets that she expects her department to grow little beyond its current scope as a PR department in coming years.
Another critical issue frequently cited is the need to move communications away from a tactical sphere of operations to a more strategic approach. Some practitioners fear they spend too much time in response mode and not enough time in thinking mode. This impedes their ability to drive positive value for the business, even if effective and responsive reputation management helps prevent any negative impact on the bottom line.
One corporate affairs professional representing a global food manufacturer says: “Traditionally, corporate affairs was seen as a reactive tool: clear up a mess, manage a crisis. But increasingly corporate affairs is seen as a co-pilot to deliver growth for the business – a shift in mindset rather than capability.”
Another challenge results from either the legacy of rapid growth or, to take one example, from the transformation of a large Asian domestic player into a truly global brand. The head of function at a major Chinese telecoms firms says the historical autonomy of departments and business groups, and the need to standardise communications globally, remain two of the most important structural issues his business faces in trying to develop coherent and consistent communications channels.