Relevance, Reinvention and Reputation

In a conversation with Lynne Anne Davis, President of FleishmanHillard Asia Pacific, Channy Lee finds out how two of the world’s biggest megatrends – the advent of the Internet and the rise of Asia as a dominant global force for business, brands and innovation – have dramatically changed the face of the public relations industry in the region


biz.hk: With a background in journalism and advertising, what made you turn to – and stay in – PR as a career choice?

Davis: The University of Missouri’s internationally acclaimed School of Journalism prepared me for all kinds of pursuits in life. Writing and creativity are my passions and I relish account management – unlocking problems and setting strategies with clients. Each of these roles is distinct and separate in ad agencies, so I switched to PR early in my career to exercise everything I love to do.

It turned out to be more thrilling than I ever imagined. From meeting heads of state, advising game-changing companies, dealing with some of the trickiest issues and pivotal milestones in business, it’s been non-stop – especially in a region as dynamic as Asia. There is never a shortage of drama or diversity to feed an appetite for excitement.

biz.hk: What are the game-changers in PR over the past few years?

Davis: Two of the world’s biggest megatrends have dramatically changed the face of our industry in the region: the advent of the Internet and the rise of Asia as a dominant global force for business, brands and innovation.

Like the discovery of electricity, the Internet has transformed life and the way we all live. At its most basic, the Internet is highly connective communications. So is PR. The impact and future potential it has unleashed for our industry is staggering, really. The Internet’s disintermediation of communications has led all marketing disciplines to embrace integration: marrying offline and online strategies across multiple platforms, with social firmly at the core.

PR is also central to the transformation of Asian multinationals into well-recognized, respected global leaders. Their overseas expansion has increased demand for PR and global PR networks to facilitate entry into new markets, which are typically crowded and highly competitive. Reputation plays a pivotal role. Building trust and exporting brand values are among the many hurdles that communications helps clear across a range of stakeholders – from regulators to investors to consumers.

biz.hk: How should businesses utilize social media?

Davis: Businesses must position themselves for a social media-centric world, aligning communications across paid, earned, shared and owned media. Market and audience insights chart that course, so research and analytics are critical.

To help, we’ve built sophisticated communications command centers for clients that not only listen and track online conversations but they feed and measure them as well. They have elevated the ability to gauge and engage in conversations that matter to their business. You don’t have to look far into the future to see a time when all companies will operate these in some form as a requisite of doing business.

biz.hk: In a recent interview with the SCMP, you stated that “traditional ways of communication and crisis management are outdated; command and control is dead,” would you elaborate?

Davis: Reputation is everything. A digital world of radical transparency and higher consumer expectations requires vigilance to protect and defend reputations. They are more fragile than ever. The rise of consumer activism and cyber-attacks, for example, are part of a rapidly expanding universe of issues swirling around companies 24/7. Every citizen with a smartphone can amplify a major incident or a simple disappointment globally, on the spot, with just a few clicks.

Crises break at Tweet speed, which completely disrupts how organizations traditionally manage issues. Live response is now crucial, irrespective of time zones. We have developed a network of certified crisis experts helping companies prepare for and keep pace with this reality. It’s one of our fastest growing services in Asia. Re-engineering crisis and issues response is a priority; preparedness and plans must factor in completely new demands for acting fast.

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biz.hk: What did you learn as PR jury president of the 2015 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity?

Davis: There is clearly a significant shift toward combining the power of creativity with purpose to drive performance. The Shared Value innovators increasingly take center stage at the Cannes Lions for brilliantly aligning brand promise and product benefits with social benefits. Female empowerment, for example, was a major universal inspiration for many of 2015’s top campaigns globally.

It’s been said that people care less about what a company does than why it does it. A brand has to assert its identity and clearly show where it stands in order to win hearts and minds. In a time when transparency, social responsibility, and sustainability have become key indicators of brand character, winning campaigns and companies must cater to the communication of these values.

biz.hk: How does creativity play into it?

Davis: People today may be more accessible than ever, but they are also more distracted. The Internet has democratized creativity and hence campaigns today are co-created with the world. Engagement requires making an emotional connection that compels people to align with a common interest. This tests every agency’s creative limits. It also plays to the strengths of PR, which has always engaged with audiences in creative, real-time ways rather than simply marketing at them.

biz.hk: What values remain important for a PR firm? What qualities help people succeed in PR?

Davis: Entrusted with others’ reputations, a PR firm’s single most important value is ethics and upholding its highest standards. This requires cultivating a strong culture of integrity that is the foundation for ethical-decision making by every individual in the agency.

Beyond the basics, high situational awareness is the mark of a good communicator. Why? They always have their heads up. It pays to pay attention and be able to contextualize trends, from new technology and industrial shifts, to market and political forces. Most importantly, they are actively plugged into the conversations and insatiably curious.

Over the years, I’ve found that generally, people who live life deeply, with diverse interests, do really well in this business. You’ve got to be in the thick of it to stay tapped into what people care about and why. After all, they have to care before they share. Share-ability is the litmus test for effective communications today.

biz.hk: What is your motto in any given PR project?

Davis: Every campaign, no matter how small, is deserving of a big idea that also makes the world a better place.

The new corporate mandate to drive profits and purpose comes with a new creative mandate for agencies, too. That’s why we have introduced SharedImpactLab to advise clients in line with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, considered “the world’s to-do list.”

We contribute further through pro bono work for organizations such as the Asian University for Women (AUW) in Bangladesh, which educates a new generation of leaders by finding extraordinary women from the most unexpected locations and teaching them not only to transform their own lives but also society.

In simple terms, it’s our power to change the world. That’s what excites me most about this business and the work we do.

biz.hk: Where is the industry of PR headed next?

Davis: Looking ahead, areas of focus are relevance, reinvention and reputation. Classic brands that have had time on their side to build leadership over decades must re-evaluate their relevance and, more often than not, reinvent to meet changing lifestyles and expectations. This is especially true in Asia where early adopters abound and younger generations prefer the latest, greatest and new. If your brand is a legend, it is likely time to refresh how it fits into everyday life today.

The answer to that may lie in how clearly a company and its brands communicate how they are creating “shared value.” It’s not a fad. Consumers demand more responsibility from companies. Likewise, governments are partnering and regulating in the same spirit. Progressive enterprises are following suit in droves, rewarded by increased sales and share price, greater customer preference and loyalty, and higher employee satisfaction and retention, for example. These expectations will continue to intensify. Success is determined by the swift, the creative, and the relevant. That makes 2016 a year of great opportunity for PR.


Lynne Anne Davis is President & Senior Partner, FleishmanHillard Asia Pacific, and Founding Board Member and Co-Chair of the Hong Kong Support Foundation of the Asian University for Women.

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