The spin doctor

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Dr Simeon Mellalieu made the switch from archaeology to public relations. As the new chairman of the Hong Kong PR Council, he tells Mark O’Brien how the industry is keeping pace with rapid change 

Simeon Mellalieu was academically trained as an archeologist where his mind focussed on the world’s past. But in his new role he is looking to the present, and even more so the future. The new chairman of the Hong Kong Council of Public Relations Firms’, who took office in May this year, has some clear ideas regarding the future of the profession in the Special Administrative Region.

Despite occupying a leading role in regional PR, Mellalieu readily admits that he accidently found himself in PR. He found that the profession “turned to be a way of sourcing cash” between archeological digs. Two periods in Kuwait left Mellalieu feeling that his chosen profession was one temporary contracts and the feeling of missed job opportunities. “I was at a career crossroads. I could give the PR game a go for six months and go back to archaeology, but decided to stay in PR.”

Fourteen years later, although he misses his previous incarnation, he has no regrets. “There’s plenty to be thankful for to PR, I wouldn’t be sitting in an office in Hong Kong, if I hadn’t made that switch and running an international agency. It’s fantastic achievement and I am very proud of that.”

Mellalieu has been in Hong Kong for seven years, six and a half of them with Ketchum where he has been running its Asia-Pacific HQ since March last year. “In today’s world pressures on costs and procurement efficiencies has resulted in clients seeking one-stop-shops in a way they didn’t before. Broadly communications is diversifying – reflecting an explosion of information.”

Forty five per cent of Ketchum’s business, for example is in corporate communications. “If you fold in financial communications it reaches 85 per cent in HK. The number of Chinese companies looking to list on the HK stock exchange has meant it’s a growing part of Ketchum’s business. The financial, investment and analyst communities are absolutely vital stakeholders,” he says.

In addition to running one of the large agencies, Mellalieu found himself migrating from chairman of the Council’s PR committee to becoming chairman of the whole body. The Council has 25 member companies including multinationals, home grown Hong Kong businesses and companies operating regionally.

The new chairman has some clear priorities about developing the work currently undertaken by the council, pointing in particular to its accreditation scheme. “One thing the council has done well since its outset is to establish the accreditation scheme for PR agencies and PR practice here in Hong Kong. It’s something very well established and has increasing number of members.

Every three years a company has to be reviewed. We are currently reviewing the scheme itself for the current environment. When it was first formulated there wasn’t very much identifiable in the way of good governance, particularly as it impacted on PR.

Moving forward

Since the accreditation scheme was started there’s been  Sarbanes-Oxley and Enron. Our scheme doesn’t just address how good is your PR writing and how is your client reporting but tries to ensure that if a client engages an accredited company they have proper financial measures in place, that the company won’t go up in smoke and you lose your intellectual capital. By Christmas we will have brought the scheme up to date by incorporating further external auditing procedures.”

One of the goals of the council in the next few months is to ensure that increasing attention is paid to social media in the accreditation process. “When our accreditation scheme was founded there was social media in terms of the internet, which was often nothing more than the company website. The explosion of digital media means that not a single PR brief that comes passed our door, that doesn’t include social media. Digital communications for investor relations through blogging and analysts with their own blogs and twitter feeds too are widespread. Investor relations people are increasing their reach and transparency.

The way in which these tools are be used varies far and wide and what we are advocating is full transparency. We believe that third parties should say they are acting on behalf of clients and not pretend otherwise. Transparency is absolutely key – otherwise people are just being led on, which is not ethical. We want to bring this into the accreditation scheme and make it more up to date.”

No illusions

The new chairman is under no illusions that, however important the accreditation scheme is, the council needs to do more. “The accreditation scheme is one thing but we need to broaden our horizons beyond that. We are going to do a benchmarking survey which aims to estimate the size of the PR industry and the composition of the industry by sector. We are going to benchmark the size the industry and the breakdown between corporate and financial communications, technology and brand building.

“We need to establish our market share and value as a business here in Hong Kong. We will also look at salaries, benefits packages for staff. We also need to establish just how cheap or expensive we actually are. In Asia price is always subject to negotiation and agencies are frequently being accused of being more expensive than others in the market. It’s useful to have a tool that says these are fair rates and you are just trying to screw me down.”

Mellalieu says that despite the growth in the in-house PR sectors, the council will continue to “focus on agencies”. “If you look at our stakeholders, there are PR agencies, agency personnel, clients, potential clients and potential employees in agencies. We don’t want to overstretch ourselves. The priority of most of our members is focusing on talent and the second half of the year we are looking to develop a programme for students and young professionals to give them direct experience of PR case studies and we wish to incorporate as many academic institutions as we can that are teaching undergraduate and post graduate courses on PR and communications and any related subject.

“We also want it to be directed at young professionals who are recent entrants to the profession. There are two issues within talent in Hong Kong – first the skills set and the second is to do with stability. Firstly there are some very talented people here but if you take language for example is Singapore going to be stronger in the future? This is something that is very dangerous for the PR industry in Hong Kong.”

Mellalieu says that staff loyalty “is currently at its lowest – principally because of the economic upswing”. “A lot of our members are investing a lot of money in in-house training schemes while a lot of people are moving around particularly at the more junior end of the spectrum for very little gain. People are moving over for salaries which agencies cannot realistically afford. There’s a lack of realism in this regard and that’s a problem in this department at the moment,” he says.

He concludes that his real goal is increasing membership and to become increasingly relevant to our members” – admitting that “we can’t do that on accreditation alone”. “If you’re operating in Hong Kong the sheer diversity of what agencies are offering and represent is huge. There are some very successful local start-ups and here it’s not all about the big international agencies. We’ve got to represent all agencies whether they’re single one man shops all the way up to the multinational agencies.

“There are some very well established Hong Kong businesses with in some cases bigger headcounts than their international competitors operating very successfully here. We’ve got to make sure that anyone wanting to use a PR agency in Hong Kong is aware of the diversity of agencies available, while simultaneously ensuring that there is a minimum standard for the clients that are actually engaging them.”

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