Over the years, Public Relations has gained respect and credibility as a professional vocation for qualified people. Having witnessed the evolution from the inside, over the past 20 years, Jim James, the Founder and CEO of Eastwest PR feels the change is a result of growing sophistication of PR practitioners and the impact of technology. As Eastwest celebrates completion of 20 years, it is also on the lookout for a global partner. In conversation with Rashi Bisaria, Jim James speaks about where the industry is headed and Eastwest’s role in it. Edited excerpts:
Eastwest PR is looking to go global and is seeking a strategic partner. Why do you now feel the need for this expansion of scope?
Eastwest was founded in 1995 with a 3 Phase Plan: 1. Open in Singapore; 2. Regionalise within Asia; 3. Internationalise via integration to an Agency Group which has not developed an Asia network.
In 2006 we opened our China offices and in 2013 the India offices, and therefore it is time to enter Phase 3. My view is that clients are increasingly seeking either a global or local solution to their PR requirements, and that the ability of an agency to participate in global pitches will ensure their long term sustainability and profitability at a local level.
How has the PR industry evolved in Asia over the years and how has Eastwest adapted to the changes?
The industry in Asia has become more professional, regional and digital since 1995 when Eastwest was founded in Singapore. These changes are a function of the growing sophistication of PR practitioners due to improved education -- including vocational qualifications, economic development and the impact of technology. There are still regional differences in the stages of development of the industry, but a common feature is that public relations has acquired the status of a professional vocation for qualified people to pursue; and that is a positive development. As an agency, Eastwest has become regional and adopted digital technologies, both for operations and for client campaigns, even embedding the word ‘digital’ as a bar code graphic into our logo. To help our staff attain international levels of PR skills we have invested in travel for them outside of Asia, most recently for one of our Beijing teams to travel to Turkey for an international PR partner conference. Asia is still a diverse region with more differences than commonalities; and a key challenge is for the agency to offer consistency of service to clients. Eastwest works towards quality of service via a combination of communication, training and commitment.
Your clients have ranged from media and BTB to several others. Which sector has matured the most in the way it uses Public Relations strategies?
A dominant driver of change in the PR industry has been technology, notably the impact of social media and mobile devices. Technology clients should be at the forefront of change in the way they use the platforms that they provide to the market, but in my view it is the B2C clients which have adapted most readily to the new formats. The imperative has been the scale and speed of social media [e.g. Facebook or Weibo (China)], the decline of print titles and the cost of airtime; social media enables ubiquitous low cost campaigns which are measurable in real time. B2B clients have become more sophisticated in their messaging but seem to think that the buyer within an organization will still be more influenced by traditional editorial in off-line publications or attendance at a seminar. At Eastwest we have been pioneering the use of video for B2B clients as a way to assist their sales people to engage potential customers, as previously these clients would not have had a television commercial campaign due to the costs and limited audience. Enticing clients to use platforms like Youtube and Youku has begun the conversation around embedding content on-line and engaging with the community in Bulletin Boards and Social Networks.
How significant is traditional PR today, when everyone is talking Digital?
Traditional PR in my view means the involvement of an editorial influence on the message expressed by a client, in a medium that could be print, TV, Internet or an event. Digital is a medium and not a strategy. The issue with ‘digital’ platforms is that they enable 'one to many' or 'many to many’ campaigns by people or an organization which is not a professional publisher or broadcaster. There is, therefore, not an editorial filter for the person who consumes this content; and this creates the opportunity for PR agencies to reach out directly to the stakeholders who are important to a client. Older clients still crave to see themselves or their companies interviewed on a TV program or in print, even if that is a smaller amount of coverage compared to their own controlled channel e.g. Youtube or FB. The reasons are credibility and reach. When a journalist writes about a company the audience believes it to be truer than when the message is user generated, and will have built up a large audience for that outlet. Ideally, PR then can reach out to credible outlets, be they traditional or digital media, and then provide extensive content which is relevant and engaging via owned channels, to the audience. Digital technology enables this content to be available anytime and anywhere - which makes it powerful as part of an integrated strategy.
How is Asia as a market different from the US when we talk about PR as a field?
Firstly, Asia is not one PR market due to the differences in socio-economic and technological development. If one is to generalise though, it would be that PR in Europe and America has more intellectual input prior to campaign implementation because the practitioners are more experienced, audiences are more sophisticated, and the metrics of measurement better developed. Public Relations originated during World War II (1939-1945) as governments tried to canvas both domestic and international opinion. Agencies have been established in the West for some 60 years, courses have been taught at universities, and journalists have a mature understanding of the role of PR practitioners.
Compared to US and Europe, we are less sophisticated in practices and are perhaps only now entering a period of the second generation PR practitioners in Asia. Audiences have been similarly developing with post war industrialisation and consumerism, political liberalisation, and growing prevalence of global travel and telecommunications. What I have seen over the past 20 years has been the arrival of foreign multi-national networks, owned by groups such as Omnicom and WPP and their establishment via organic growth or acquisitions. This is then followed by the creation of Asian agencies founded by ex-employees of these networks. The future will have more sophisticated clients, professional practitioners and cynical audiences; we will join the global PR industry on an equal playing field.
Has the mindset of clients changed over the years?
The change in the mindset of clients reflects the pace of change in product life cycles, the impact of quarterly earnings to investors and the speed at which information travels globally due to the Internet. Clients used to enjoy a daily, weekly and monthly set of deadlines which was in line with that of the print deadlines of the media in which they wanted to feature. They relaxed after a trade show, thinking that they had 12 months until the next launch. Those days are gone; mobile communications mean that it is possible to be on 24/7, and there is an anxiety that the competition will be using speed as a source of competitive advantage. Clients therefore have less time to plan strategy and to consider results. This leads to less comprehensive lasting campaigns and more tactical initiatives. This I think is a shame, but I do not see the pace of change becoming any slower, only faster as 4G networks roll out and communications will not rely on Wi-Fi enabled locations. In other words, we will be able to work in real time from anywhere. The opportunity for the PR practitioner is to be a trusted advisor to the client by keeping focused on the messaging and the media while the client manages their internal processes.
Now that Eastwest has completed 20 years, what is next on the agenda?
The Eastwest PR Group was founded in Singapore in 1995 and now we have offices in mainland China and India, with an ambition to complete the regional network with more nodes on that network. Within India we will open offices in Delhi and Mumbai. In China we will open in Shanghai. Allied to the geographical expansion is enabling each agency to offer a blended service to clients; integrating traditional and social media. Eastwest is ready to become part of an international network, with offices in Europe and America, so that we can appeal to global clients and attract the best talent. I started the agency when I was 27, and now feel as though Eastwest has grown to become a mature business as I have become a more mature business person. Our 21st year should see Eastwest graduate to the next league of PR agencies.