SECTION 5: Talent, Culture and Skills

sect5Public Relations and Corporate Affairs are people-based industries. In this section we examine the acute talent shortage and explore how to develop the skills sets and cultures to create effective teams across Asia Pacific


5.1. Talent

VISITHUBOne word stands out as the most critical internal challenge facing the corporate communications and corporate affairs function: TALENT. From recruitment to retention, Managing Directors and department heads face severe problems. “Demand for globally minded communications and sustainability professionals has skyrocketed. Being able to identify and retain the best people is a challenge,” says one interviewee.

One agency head says: “Finding, keeping and growing talent is one of the big challenges. Finding people with digital competence and social skills is a challenge and we have to improve our brand planning expertise, and better understand how this plays out in the digital era.”

And when those with a regional focus discuss talent and attrition rates, their concern most often focuses on China, where staff appear more willing to move more frequently, often for small increases in salary or minor steps up the career ladder.

One team leader says her function suffers from an imbalance that has thus far proved almost impossible to resolve. She is striving to develop “quality” in her market but is forced to fall back on hiring whoever is available.

Another regional head believes there are cultural and structural impediments holding back the development of middle and upper tiers of the industry. “At the middle management level, there is a real lack of talent. The challenge is developing international skills at this level. We can find beginner talent quite easily. But we then need to train them.”


For agency-side leaders, the talent problem is particularly acute. Given the size of their teams, they can’t offer higher than industry-standard salaries to secure the right candidate. This could result in wage inflation across practices and teams as staff openly discuss their  remuneration with colleagues. Retention is therefore a major problem in the consultancy sphere. Agencies say they can spend three or four years training people to get to the point where they can fully service clients, but then they frequently get recruited to an in-house role. This problem, report our interviewees, is particularly prevalent in mainland China.

The shortage of talent is forcing agencies to think outside the box. “We’re increasingly looking out of the traditional agency pool for new specialist talent. When the industry is moving this fast, there’s no in-house training scheme you can develop to take your business forward or in new directions. For this you have to hire in talent,” says one agency boss.

The growth in communications more generally has simply compounded the problem confronting agencies, according to one veteran of the Asia Pacific consultancy marketplace: “The last five years have been the most pivotal for our industry as it has taken the lead in transforming in an integrated world. This has compounded the talent challenge. The requirements of the job have changed and expanded dramatically in this big shift in social communications. The nature of the job description changed dramatically and this puts new pressure on the whole talent challenge.”

Those with wide-ranging regional responsibilities also say it is difficult to effectively meet the demands presented by changing patterns of communications across a large number of markets simultaneously. He says one of his biggest challenges involves his ability to “scale-up in all markets to manage issues online and build reputations online”. “We need to upscale our internal communications in the markets in which we operate,” he adds.

5.2. Retention: The Agency Dimension

Agency-side retention has become as significant an issue as recruitment. Many agency staff are frequently considering in-house roles in order to “focus and specialise on one brand”. Agencies report a revolving door, whereby young staff gain enough experience to make them marketable for in-house roles and then make the switch.

Digital and the move towards developing creative functions within traditional communications agencies are also changing the normal career paths for those who choose to stay in agency roles.

The incentives which need to be put in place to both attract and keep top talent are also being reviewed in light of recent industry changes. Says the regional business head at one agency: “The challenge is (A) how you get those people interested in what your business is and (B) how you retain them. That is about ensuring that the talent management programmes we had five years ago are different. This is not about scope and content. There have to be some very specific R and D functions which explain clearly to our creative people what role they have in the business moving forward.”

He adds that creative people are not necessarily driven by the same goals as those who traditionally held client-facing or business development roles and points out that this requires agencies to rethink their talent management strategies. “Success no longer looks like joining as an account director and then becoming a practice director. The opportunity for talent is far richer and it is our responsibility to ensure we give people the opportunity to learn from what is going on around them. That is why we actively promote curiosity and discovery – to look for insight from way beyond our core areas,” he says.

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Communications Directors believe that understanding social and digital remains a critical skill set that requires continual re-training. Says one function head: “This is an area where all of us need to upskill quickly.”

The regional President and CEO of a global marketing and communications company said his company needed to invest more time in developing skills around data and measurement. “We need to understand more about how data in digital plays out and how it informs insightful marketing decisions. This is a core specialism that we need to grow,” he says. “We need real digital strategists who have deep insight into digital customer relationship management. It has to be real insight. You can’t fake it.”

Other senior practitioners say their teams are frequently too busy fulfilling today’s obligations to stay abreast of the latest developments in digital innovation, analytics and measurement technology. The Director of Communications in Asia Pacific, Japan and China at one of the world’s biggest tech companies said his team is “very good at execution but the basis of some of the core skills seems to have been lost”.  “Taking complex networking technology and turning it into a story where ordinary people in the street can understand why that’s important has somewhat been lost,” he said.

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5.4. Building The Right Culture

Communicators need to be creative. But creativity alone is not enough. The global CEO of one of the largest global agencies follows Walt Disney’s example by encouraging a culture of curiosity among his staff. Only by embedding this culture will staff learn new skills, adopt different approaches and go the extra mile to learn more than the basics about their clients and their needs.

Creating a culture where trust is built and shared is a common objective among managers, who believe their teams can become trusted advisers within their organisations once they invest time and effort in explaining their worth to management and colleagues.

5.5. One Team, Many Cultures

The cultural complexity of Asia Pacific requires a diverse corporate communications culture. Given the geography, teams do not always have the luxury of regular face-to-face contact and this can affect the creation of a “one team spirit”, observes one senior practitioner. “We have to work hard to inculcate a sense that we are one team regardless of our culture or where we are located,” she says. “Sometimes this is a challenge. A change in leadership or management can undermine connectivity. Sometimes it is down to who manages the office or the function.”

India and China stand out as the two most complex and culturally nuanced markets. But across borders and across teams, communications and corporate affairs directors are seeking to develop distinct communications cultures. Words and phrases that frequently crop up include dynamic, sharp, creative and adaptable to change. “We want our teams to be open-minded, willing to collaborate and be truly creative,” says one Singapore-based board-level Communications Director.

Given the scarcity of resources, and the removal of the barriers between what used to be competing marketing and communications disciplines, one senior manager says she wants to foster a “culture where all of us are part of the same team and no one should ever say that something is not their responsibility”. “Everyone is encouraged to give their input and provide their viewpoint. I would like to build a team that has fun, thinks innovatively and can be flexible to change with the rapidly changing environment,” she says.

The head of one of the largest agencies says she is encouraging her staff to be creative and experimental in using new technologies to move the dial. “There is so much new technology at our disposal and we need to be experimenting with those in helping us to achieve our objectives. Having curiosity in helping to utilise all these new technologies to best effect. Also the ability to use insight which is the beginning of every great campaign and every great creative idea. High situational awareness is essential today with things being so fast-moving. Next I would say creativity: this is really PR’s time and creativity will show whether the industry can seize that moment. We can never settle for any less than the big idea and have to be very comfortable with disruption. We want to achieve a collaborative spirit across not just teams and markets but agencies.”

An agency-side veteran of the Asia Pacific industry says it’s vital to ensure that a “consulting” culture is developed among teams. “I think every agency wants the same: a consultant’s mindset, and strategic, collaborative creativity. The ability to deliver this is dependent on leadership – not just at the local level, but all the way up through the chain. Success today is talent and personality dependent first and foremost and agency-brand dependent a distant second. If you can’t attract the best talent, you’ll lose,” he concludes.

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At a point in time where consumers, government, regulators and the media are all well trained to identify wrongdoing integrity and ethics are two important characteristics that industry leaders are seeking to embed into their teams.
Communicators can sometimes be “fluffy”, focused on words and not always on P&L sheets, and several function heads interviewed said they wanted to see their teams develop a greater cultural awareness of outcomes. One director said he was seeking to create an “open, non-hierarchical and achievement-focused” culture among his team.

There is also a need for cultural connectivity. One senior communicator working in the healthcare sector said it was important for the organisation to encourage greater engagement between teams that traditionally operated in silos, most notably the communications and government relations teams.

Other participants surveyed had ongoing concerns about the ethical standards adopted in some markets in which they operated and said this required a continual process of education among employees. While understanding of laws such as the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and voluntary codes covering, for example, payments to journalists were readily understood, one practitioner said it was important to set an ethical standard at the centre which percolated down to local employees so that they were able to make the correct judgment call when “grey areas” arose.

5.7. Lack of Innovation

Other communications and corporate affairs leads are going to significant lengths to ensure their teams fully understand the businesses they are seeking to serve. “The days of the communications function existing to dole out goodies at events is long gone,” says one. “You can’t just be a communications person and be credible. You have to understand the business.”

The Communications Director of a Chinese telecoms giant says that moving his staff from a position of “doing” to “thinking” remains a key challenge. Finding social media expertise locally based in Asia is a weakness, he added.

Overcoming the limitations that can be imposed by some of the approaches adopted in education systems in Asia is also giving companies cause for longer-term concern. Some interviewees said that getting people to take ownership of their work and show leadership often becomes a significant stumbling block in developing middle-tier talent. Said one function head: “I would like to see my team linking their communications outputs to business outcomes. All too often the communications team can be seen as order-takers rather than driving a strategic agenda.”