The jazz clubs were terrific, the architecture breathtaking, the restaurants outstanding – even the weather put on its best show for the event. As a venue for its 2005 summit, the International Communications Consultancy Organisation (ICCO) couldn’t have chosen a better location than the idyllic capital of the Czech Republic.
Being an umbrella organization for 850 consultancies around the world, ICCO’s bi-annual summit is always a dynamic and lively affair. It has become something of a Mecca for public relations professionals, providing a unique opportunity to network and break bread, as it were, with leading professionals from around the world in congenial surroundings. And so it was with this year’s summit in Prague.
Held on October 20 and 21, the summit was attended by nearly 200 delegates representing the cream of global reputation management. Carlos Lareau, Chairman ICCO & COO, Burson-Marsteller Worldwide, John Saunders, President (Europe) for Fleishman-Hillard and incoming Chairman of ICCO, Heidi Sinclair, CEO, Continental Europe, Burson-Marsteller, Harris Diamond, CEO, Weber Shandwick, and Helen Ostrowski and Jean-Baptiste de Bellescize, CEO and President, respectively, of Porter Novelli to name a few.
Given the very global nature of the gathering at Prague, perhaps the central theme of this year’s summit -- “The Globalisation of PR: Myth or Reality?” –- was a trifle behind the times.
Speaking from our experience at Genesis Public Relations, I would say this question has become almost rhetorical. Globalisation has been a reality for at least a decade now. In fact, for PR professionals around the world the debate over whether it is desirable or not is a no-brainer; the challenge now is coping with the reality of globalisation, not its imminence.
As ICCO President Carlos Lareau pertinently asked in his keynote message, “Where do companies need to draw the line between ‘globalisation’ and ‘localization’ to make their products and services desirable to empowered consumers from Philadelphia to Frankfurt, from Budapest to Beijing?” The real challenge, one would say, has gone beyond “globalisation” per se to “glocalising”.
Making his presentation, Harris Diamond of Weber Shandwick made an interesting observation. In the world of public relations, there is a growing point of convergence among three universes – the global, the national and the individual. Balancing the three interests at various times is the public relations challenge of globalization.
Global companies and their brands simultaneously need appropriate local responses that are in synch with a universal message. These challenges urgently require balancing two conflicting forces. One is the need to put harmonised systems and processes in place to service clients with global needs and ambitions optimally and the second is to think out of the box and creatively – there are no “templates” to go by.
In that context, the agency-client dialogue between Heidi Sinclair and Dr Herbert Heitmann, Head of Global Communications, SAP AG, was particularly interesting. The B-M-SAP relationship is an excellent example of the challenges of running a global campaign in a region as diverse and complex as Europe. Sinclair and Heitmann’s conclusion: to demonstrate meaningful value, it is vital to win the hearts and minds of stakeholders in each country. Of course, being global helps corporations achieve economies of scale and derive other benefits, but the issues of messaging and public relations become all the more complex as well.
Perhaps the new development here is that globalisation is not a one-way, developed-West to developing-East communication. It is significant that the first day’s programme included a session – presented by yours truly – on “The Coming Threat of Branded Asian products”.
The focus of my presentation was simple. The threat is no longer an impending one; Asian brands have already arrived on the global scene. Whether it is Sony, Lenovo, BenQ, Tata, Samsung, San Miguel, Singapore Airlines to name just a few, all of them are also globally recognised brand names, part of the daily currency of domestic life in hundreds of countries around the world. It is no coincidence that today, no less than eight Asian brands figure among the world’s top 100 brands in the BusinessWeek rankings.
My prediction is that this number will grow exponentially as Asia moves up the value chain, evolving from a low-value commodity-driven approach to a brand-driven approach on the back of experience in supplying to global companies and the emergence of a young, largely tech-driven workforce.
All of this calls for responses that will require top-driven, holistic strategies –- not just advertising, not just PR, but an integration of many business functions.
This is what makes PR such an exciting business to be in, especially for those of us working in the Asian markets. And that is why I, for one, was disappointed that only Genesis Public Relations represented India at the summit. Considering the growing international attention that India is attracting as an emerging engine of global growth -– and the consequent explosive expansion that its public relations industry is seeing -– this is hard to understand.
Of course, we had excellent reason to be there. Prema Sagar, our Principal and Founder, was to be inducted into the ICCO Hall of Fame. Prema is the first Indian to be inducted into a pantheon that includes the legendary Harold Burson, Founder Chairman of Burson-Marsteller. This is a singular honour for Prema and reaffirmed the high standards that Genesis has set for public relations in India.
In fact, Prema’s induction into the Hall of Fame is conclusive proof of the twin predictions that are being made about globalisation: that this will be Asia’s century and India will play a central role in Asia’s emergence as a global powerhouse.
The summit rounded off with Laureau formally handing over the ICCO president-ship to John Saunders. A quintessential Irishman, John has seen the PR business from the bottom up. He started out in the business as owner of a small agency that was acquired by Fleishman-Hillard, and eventually rose to head Fleishman’s European operations.
John talked briefly about the next steps for the consultancy business worldwide, principally fulfilling one of ICCO’s key objectives of inclusive growth in Asia-Pacific.
Did I make all of that sound like hard work? Well, let me assure you that the Czech Public Relations Associations were impeccable hosts. What with invitations to the local theatre, great cuisine and much more, there was no time to be bored. And hey, if you’re a serious jazz fan, Prague really is the place to be.
(The author is Chief Executive Officer, Genesis Public Relations)