Why PR needs to embrace change as digital transformation surges in SEA

Over the last five years, the way the public consume news and get information has gone through a rapid “digital transformation”. While there are still people who prefer to get their news via a newspaper, the ones who grew up during the internet boom of the 2000s have drastically shifted their attention to the digital sphere - what with the internet and smartphones today.

In “Digital in 2017: Southeast Asia”, a joint report by global agency We Are Social and social media management platform Hootsuite, of the 644.1 million population in Southeast Asia, 53% (339.2 million) use the internet, 47% (305.9 million) are active on social media, and 42% (272.6 million) access their social media via through smartphones. In comparison to the previous year, the number of users for all have risen over 30%. The digital age has definitely impacted on how traditional print media outlets all across Southeast Asia have been changing strategies to suit the consumption habits of consumers today.

Even the routes to generate PR have evolved. Gone are the days when having a government G.O.H. (guest of honour) at your event will get the media to come and cover your event. Going back to basics and fundamentals, as editorial teams are becoming leaner and are consolidating, the “hook” or rather content has now become key - this is plain PR 101.

However, in some markets, if your “hook” does not ride on the hot topics or trends that impact the country, chances are that the media just won’t bite. While building relationships with a journalist have proven to help in getting the story, with recent shifts in media outlets, the need of curating “rocking” content has become of utmost importance. I’ve seen this need having worked with start-up companies and its founders over the past two years.

While some markets warrant a changing formula in dealing with the media and, in turn, getting the specific type of story you want for your client. This is no “cookie-cutter” that can be implemented in different geographies. Cultural differences and language barriers are two major factors in how PR works in other Southeast Asian countries much like how, in China, it is customary to gift journalists a red packet for attending a press conference; or how a taxi or car is arranged for an interview with your spokesperson in India. Practices like these are not uncommon in other parts of Southeast Asia.

In the lead-up to a press conference in Bangkok, it was the distinct difference in consumer trend that resulted in a slight culture shock. My Thai counterpart suggested to also target Facebook and LINE groups as part of our media outreach strategy - that on top of also reaching out to traditional and online news outlets in Thailand.

It was only later did I realise that, in Thailand, not many would want to spend money to buy a newspaper or a magazine. In fact, coming from an English-educated country such as Singapore, the naive thought of getting a story in an English publication in Thailand seemed like a big accomplishment, but the reality is: a large majority of Thai people do not read in English on a daily basis.

Many locals there consume their news through community pages, forums, and even social media platforms. A white paper produced this year by PR Newswire and Infoquest on Thailand’s media landscape found changes in the reading habits of Thai people where online networking and social media are now providing more reading sources for the local populace.

One such is LINE, a messenger app widely used in Thailand, has an app-based function “LINE TODAY” - a news distribution service provided to Indonesia, Taiwan, and Thailand; and not available to Singapore-registered users. LINE Thailand announced earlier this year that of the 44 million mobile internet users in Thailand, 94 per cent (around 41 million) are LINE users - making the country the second best market for the instant messenger app after Japan. Social media still remains one of the mostly used platforms in Thailand, particularly Facebook. In the same white paper, it found that more Thai people are accessing the social media of news websites and get their news via news apps.

While Thailand is seeing a rapid change in digital consumption, news from mainstream media still remains to be  trustworthy - which is why new agencies there still rely on technology, aligning with changing consumer habits, in providing more in-depth analysis and investigative content to stand out from their competition. This new culture shift in Thailand will allow for new and creative strategies for PR professionals there to “get on with the times” so that it communicates to the channels their target audiences consume.

Despite the need to align PR strategies with the digital habits of the people, event-driven strategies seem to be the norm in cities like Bangkok. While it is still important to focus on a key message to communicate to the media and hence, the public; the event needed to have a public figure - be it a celebrity or a well-known businessman present to make a greater impact for the media’s attendance. Indonesia shares a similar culture when brands or companies want to make headlines in the news. Similar to how companies in Singapore still feel the need to hold press events to announce “something” or communicate “news”, this tactic is heavily practiced in Indonesia’s capital Jakarta.

Indonesia, like Thailand, also has its people changing consumption habits and adapting to digital lives - similarly, media there see the need to align with this change and has adopted new technologies to stay relevant with Indonesians. That said, journalists’ habits in Indonesia, namely Jakarta, still need some form of relationship building where it is important to hold an event of sorts where they will be able to see a “face” to the company or brand. Hence why the need to hold an event or even a simple lunch from which a relationship is forged. This will help in keeping the company in the media’s top-of-mind recall for future stories and events.

Though in some aspects, these strategies still remain similar to those used in Singapore, however, the differences in culture and how media work in other countries is a key factor to consider when attempting to grow a company’s presence - especially if it’s a first exercise or interaction with the country’s media. PR done in these countries sometimes may require “sensationalisation” or sensitivity on top of creating a strong key message. Of course, on top of that, language may become a huge barrier for many trying to enter a non-English speaking market.

My advice to start-up founders who require a campaign to be done beyond where they’re based is: which country they’ve set their sights on, the intent of the campaign, and who their target audience is. It is important to set the precedence that no two countries share the same strategies in publicity and that the client understands clearly. Finding the right on-ground person in each market or who understands the landscape or language is also key.

Bottom line: identifying the key factors of how the media functions in individual Southeast Asian countries will help in getting the successes you would want to see.

The writer is Joachim Leong, account manager at Asia PR Werkz.