Based in Hong Kong, Charles Lankester, EVP Global Reputation & Risk Management, Ruder Finn is a global marketing and communications leader, specialising in reputation and risk management. His expertise hinges on financial services, technology and pharmaceutical sectors, and advising clients on managing and mitigating reputation risk and capitalising on new business and marketing opportunities.
In conversation with Shree Lahiri, he elaborates on the new mantra for managing reputation, cross- cultural barriers, the game-changing social media and more…
RT: You had shared some tips on how one could maximise chances of getting hired into a PR firm in 2015. Now that we are in 2017, would you like to add some more tips?
Ans: Understand what Public Relations is in 2017. It’s not about building relationships, media, events or making connections. It is increasingly a data-driven, carefully planned and strategic business that should deliver measurable business outcomes.
Understand the business. Read the trade media. Learn about the latest campaigns, client moves, business trends, client wins and losses. It is vital to have a point of view.
Research your potential employer. Find out where they do business, who are their biggest clients and research their strategy/positioning. The more you sound like an insider, the more impressed we will be.
Social and digital insight. You must understand this area and have a point of view. What new knowledge or insight can you bring? What are the hot three social media platforms in India that we should care about? Why?
RT: You had pointed out it then, that is important to “understand what public relations is. It’s not about building relationships, events or making connections. It’s increasingly a data-driven, carefully planned and strategic business that should deliver measurable business outcomes”. How would you like to expand on this point of view?
Ans: If we go back just even may be 10 years, the typical job of Public Relations consultant was media. So your client was doing an IPO, your client had a problem, your client was launching a product. Pretty much whenever the question you asked the consultant, the answer was ‘let’s have a media round table’. It was the same with an ad agency. If you wanted to talk to people, you knew what they read, the channels they watched and you could tell the advertiser that 75% of the Indian people would be watching this programme at this hour, and, if you are not in front of the TV, you would miss it. There was no DVR, no internet then. So, you had a predictable model for advertising spend.
Fast forward to now. We have paid media, where we do a lot of media buying. We have earned media, which is Public Relations. We’ve got shared which is Twitter, Facebook. We must be able to articulate across all of that and, the data part comes in. We help you structure the best campaign to reach your customers.
Regarding measurement, we’ve just finished some work for a client Prudential. It was a communications campaign, to promote a research study on inter-relationships. We discovered that of the people Prudential was trying to reach, 51% were aware of the campaign already, and of that 19% were willing to meet with the agent! That’s as binary as it gets! It’s fine to say it’s a great clip, or we have got 2 million hits, so what? This is where we are trying to move conversations now, to how do we positively affect your business. Or, if we are working on a crisis situation, how have we preserved your share price? Or, another measurement of staff retention – how many have left or stayed on?
There’s disruption of media now. We have an interesting development – Amazon going into movies…I think the Oscar-winning film Manchester by the Sea was distributed by Amazon Studios. Alibaba Pictures also invested in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, which was its first Hollywood investment. It’s very interesting times. We’ve got net companies challenging norms.
RT: What is the impact of cross cultural factors in building reputation management capabilities including sustainability, risk and crisis management? How is it different across Asia vis-a-vis the West?
Ans: India has social traits regarding entertainment, there’s Bollywood, food…I would say, any marketer would ignore it, at their peril! In the good old days, head office would send a video clip badly dubbed, and just say, “It’s for India or China…”
Today, our markets are global, so they need to say, “I need to be Indian in India or Chinese in China”, even though I may be a British brand or an American brand, especially if it’s a high volume FMCG brand. You need to be high local to the market. I think you must give immense credit to the South Koreans for what they have achieved. There’s a Korean TV in pretty much every drawing room….it has to be Samsung or LG! Some 10 years ago, it would have been Sony or 20 years ago, it would have been some American brand.
RT: Today, the new mantra for managing reputation hinges on social media. At anytime, anywhere one angry tweet can turn a brand topsy-turvy. How are brands handling crisis situations and how difficult is the journey to do a turnaround?
Ans: I think the new mantra should be – measurement and value. How do I work with my PR firm to create value? Just getting nice press clips doesn’t mean anything. No hiding behind clipping reports. The corollary is that clients do a really good job, to spend money on research. Clients need to be brave here. They need to get comfortable, being uncomfortable!
What’s more interesting, as the corporate world is moving, money lives in different areas, and less and less money lives in PR! Smaller budgets are for PR, and bigger budgets are set aside for Digital and Marketing. So, we tend to look into the digital areas, but we do love our clients in the PR department, but we don’t love them for at US$30000 per month!
RT: In today’s corporate scenario where online reputation is your reputation, it is no longer a question of whether companies should indulge in social media or not. Please comment.
Ans: Social media, and increasingly messaging platforms such as WhatsApp and FB Messenger, drive the conversation around brands. Not engaging is no longer an option, but it’s appalling that some companies don’t even have a decent social listening service engaged. At the very least, even if you choose not to participate in the online conversations, you should know what people are saying about your brand. Any brand that chooses not to listen and not to engage, risks being perceived as being behind the times, conservative, a dinosaur. That’s not a positive impression at all.
RT: Reputations are fragile today. What difference is the Sonar World Tour making in assisting CMOs to face crises?
Ans: Reputations are indeed fragile, and once tarnished, repairs take a sustained, consistent effort over a long period of time. Even if memories are short, the subtle shift in sentiment against a brand lasts a long time. This is just like interactions between people. You may not remember what someone did, but you will always remember how they made you feel. Social media today is all about emotional reactions, and reflexive outrage. The sheer volume of social conversations also makes it challenging to spot which hot spots can flare up into a full-blown crisis, and which ones will simmer down. Thus, being prepared enough to react quickly and decisively, while not feeding new cycles of negative impact, is key. No amount of training can be as effective as experiencing a real crisis and learning from mistake, but SONAR offers the next best thing, which is the opportunity to practice crisis management under realistic conditions, with publics and stakeholders that react in real-time to you, sometimes unpredictably. Life is unpredictable, and the evolutionary path of every crisis is different, so we take pains to ensure the conditions experienced in SONAR mimic that.
RT: What are the factors that would typify the “India pit-stop”, in your jargon?
Ans: Is the Indian “pit-stop” different? I don’t think so. Increasingly, every economy, every country has its idiosyncrasies. I mean the corporates as well. They’ve got a vibrant social media, a turbulent reputation environment. The example of the moment is the Oscars! Who would have imagined!
We are here today, and tomorrow we are at Singapore. We are taking our products to different markets. All companies today, are thinking deeply about their reputation protection and reputation management. We strive to bring in new products, new thinking. We’re delighted to be here. We’ve found many people want to have conversations to find out what threats are out there. And we help them both understand and how to mitigate those threats!
RT: Have social media changed organisation–stakeholder relationships? How would you describe it?
Ans: Social media has contributed to the rise of filter bubbles and echo chambers, and the decrease in critical thinking coupled with the rise of fake news, has made engagement much more difficult. Frequent lack of context means stakeholders form opinions of organisations based on insufficient data, which can contribute to brands being unfairly tangled up in crises.