What matters in PR? With Thomas Howard, BCW China

“What Matters in PR” shines the spotlight on PR leaders in the industry. We speak with Thomas Howard, Senior Director, Corporate & Public Affairs, BCW China. In our conversation, Thomas tells us what it’s like working in PR in China and the evolution of the profession over the years.

How has PR evolved over the years?

In a world of exponential change, our clients’ organizations and industries are evolving at a rapid pace and operating in increasingly complex, connected stakeholder ecosystems. PR – in particular corporate communications – is evolving in response, moving up the value chain in recent years and increasingly being recognized as business critical. After all, reputation and effective communications can make or break a company’s prospects.

The scope of our work has also evolved, and we are increasingly consulting for CEOs, boards and corporate leaders on matters of strategy. Media relations and crisis management are still very important pillars of what we do, but our remits are expanding as clients seek an integrated, one-stop solution.

The influence and reach of social and digital platforms like WeChat, Weibo, Twitter and TikTok cannot be underestimated. A focus on quality digital content, including audio-visual, is important to help companies break through the content clutter and effectively reach target audiences. Meanwhile, data analytics is becoming an increasingly powerful tool to better understand audience behaviours and make data-driven decisions. And from a crisis or reputation management perspective, the speed at which information travels requires us to be prepared and to stay on the pulse of what’s out there so we can act quickly.

Lastly, companies are increasingly expected to demonstrate their credibility and contributions to the industries and communities which they operate. The inclusion of third-party advocates and key opinion leaders in campaigns can add credibility and authenticity, especially with diversity or ESG work.

How do you prove the value of your work?

On one level you have traditional quantitative metrics like volume and positivity of media coverage, visibility of key messages, social media engagement, and external recognition in terms of awards and rankings. But importantly, we want to lay the groundwork for our clients for long-term sustainable success and strong reputation, and often these quantitative metrics do not give the full picture.

BCW is a communications agency built to move people, and at the heart of the work we do is trying to shift perceptions and levels of understanding among key stakeholders and decision makers. It can be more challenging to measure favourability or perception on a day-to-day basis and the shifts are not always seen immediately, and sometimes take place over a series of years.

Often, the value of PR is not fully appreciated until a crisis hits, at which point PR becomes elevated in the boardroom. One of the key markers of business and reputational success is to continually assess and understand the opportunities and risks your company faces across a complex stakeholder ecosystem and be prepared – as much as possible – to navigate various situations successfully if they arise.

“I feel PR is a widely misunderstood profession that often conjures up images of spin doctors, cocktail parties and photo ops. Much of the hard work we do as PR professionals never really enters the public domain. As a profession, we need to do a much better job of demystifying what it is we do while increasing understanding of the value we bring to the table.”

Thomas on what PR means to him

What is it like to do PR in China?

China presents unique challenges and opportunities, given its development priorities and increasing global influence. China is a huge market, and what may work in tier-one cities like Beijing, and Shanghai, may not necessarily work elsewhere in the country. China’s vast and rapidly evolving media and digital landscapes offer a vibrant mix of nationally and locally influential platforms that are best approached with an appreciation of regional differences, such as language and consumer behaviours.

An effective PR strategy in China must balance the unique dynamics and expectations of local Chinese audiences with those of stakeholders elsewhere in the world. As experts in taking Chinese companies global, one thing we encourage our clients to do, particularly when working across multiple countries, is undertake thorough market research to identify opportunities and risks. This is especially important when dealing with different cultures, languages, political systems, media / online environments and regulatory landscapes, among other factors. Take the time to prepare and make sure that messaging will be effective, while considering local relevance and cultural suitability.

“In the early stages of your career, prioritise opportunities for learning and growth, stay curious, identify role models, actively seek feedback, and be grateful for any constructive criticism received. Don’t be afraid to take risks but make sure you always learn from your mistakes. At the same time, remain humble and don’t let praise go to your head.”

Thomas’ advice for a young PR professional

What resources would you recommend to those seeking to understand PR?

PR professionals need to be open-minded and understand that the best solution may not always come from a PR way of thinking, but rather from a combination of different backgrounds with different perspectives and experiences. Take time to listen and learn from colleagues of all levels and specialisms, but also speak regularly with people from outside the PR sector.

To help stay informed, I recommend subscribing to a range of newsletters from top global media outlets, such as Bloomberg, Fortune, or Foreign Affairs, and reviewing thought leadership and analysis from governments, think-tanks and consultancies.  

Finally, I’d recommend a great book by PR industry pioneer, the late Harold Burson, who spent over seven decades in this sector. The co-founder of Burson-Marsteller, one of BCW’s two legacy agencies, Harold released ‘The Business of Persuasion: Harold Burson on Public Relations’ in 2017. It is an interesting personal account of the thoughts behind a lifelong focus on the reputation of corporations around the world and includes many lessons still relevant today.

Read other What Matters in PR? interviews here.

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