“Public relations needs to be more business-savvy”

The agency view of the changes in Asia-Pacific’s corporate communications

Richard Tsang and his team at the SPRG offices in Singapore



For the agency view on the changes in Asia-Pacific’s corporate communications profession, we’ve turned to a communications professional with long-standing overview of the communications field.

Richard Tsang, chairman of Strategic Public Relations Group (SPRG), has been at deeply involved in agency work in the region since the late 1980s: almost three decades later, we asked him to describe the evolution of corporate communications.

During the course of your career as an advisor to many corporate clients, how have you seen the role of the communications function change among your clients?

In the past, it was always a mix of advisory and execution work; now it depends on the size of the clients. For larger companies, advisory/consultancy and execution work will be handled by their in-house department, while for small companies it is still both advisory and execution. Also, the function was more image-oriented, whereas now it is primarily stakeholder management. And today, the corporate structure is leaner: C-suite or board members are more involved in communications than before.

Your particular expertise is financial communications and investor relations. In your opinion, does public relations need to be more business-savvy, and do you feel that most corporate communicators have sufficient grasp of the financial bottom-line?

In my opinion, public relations definitely needs to be more business-savvy. In order to manage stakeholder expectations, public relations needs to understand all their concerns, and why they should (or shouldn’t) support a company. In many listed companies, investor relations is under the supervision of the chief financial officer, therefore they have sufficient knowledge of it, but public relations practitioners who only have communications expertise will not be able to deal with this responsibility. However, there are increasingly more practitioners from the finance field joining the agency side, providing their knowledge and connections to clients.

SPRG provided IPO communications services for Regina Miracle (HKEx: 2199), which has become one of the best performing IPOs in Hong Kong in 2015.

With mergers and acquisitions on the rise in countries including China/Hong Kong, India and Vietnam, what kind of impacts will this have on Asia’s public relations scene?

The first challenge is to understand the rules and regulations of the different countries. These cultural differences are also regarded as a critical determinant of success for any merger or acquisition. It is also crucial to establish a regional/international presence to make sure unified messages are delivered and to ensure timeliness. Government relations is also becoming more important in mergers and acquisitions as sometimes it is not just a matter of financial dealings, but also the ability to understand and abide by government policies.

“In order to manage stakeholder expectations, public relations needs to understand all their concerns.”

What are some of the guidelines you give to communicate during a merger or acquisition?

I firmly believe that local expertise is very important as this will provide you with insights into the culture, sensitivities and ties of that specific market or location. Proximity is also important as stakeholders are hesitant to buy or sell their assets to a total stranger. No matter if you are a buyer or seller, you need to obtain support from a number of stakeholders, including minority shareholders, employees, customers and vendors, otherwise you may end up with a hollow victory. I also advise my clients to identify key opinion leaders. Many deals that fail half way are due to individuals who suddenly appear to disrupt the process. That’s why it is important to try to develop good rapport. Also, it is important to build trust among stakeholders, especially if you are the buyer.

Lenovo collaborates with Tsannkuen, the largest Taiwan chain store for electronics products, which will result in more benefits for retail customers.

Since its foundation in 1995, SPRG has witnessed many changes in Asian public relations, changes reflected in its breadth of ‘footprints’, from classics such as automobile and financial institutions to the more contemporary blogger and influencer relations. How does a network such as SPRG identify and build up expertise in new areas such as blogger engagement - is it just a matter of hiring young talent?

I strongly believe that content, strategy and expertise are keys to success in our industry. While platforms continue to change, it still comes down to delivery and execution. If experienced public relations practitioners are already masters of content and strategy, then learning to navigate across new platforms in the social or digital world is not all that difficult. Hiring younger people to execute is also an easy way out. No matter what the next communications platform may be, it is still important for public relations practitioners to understand business, and what makes a successful business. This is the dialogue between advisors and clients.

An important area of focus for SPRG is sustainability and corporate social responsibility; how have you seen awareness of the importance of this issue change in the past two decades?

Sustainability and corporate social responsibility is increasingly important in Asia, especially in locations where the local stock exchange requires all listed companies to be involved and report on this matter. However, in the minds of those in management, many still associate corporate social responsibility with donating money, even though stakeholders require engagement. Sustainability is a major topic; it is also changing the way in which business is being conducted. It will take a lot more effort from consultants and companies to collectively address this issue while balancing the demands of different stakeholders.

‘Run as ELLE, Let’s Fitbit!’ is a Shanghai running tour co-hosted by Fitbit and ELLE Magazine. The five kilometer run involved over 50 participants including celebrity Liu Liyang, and was broadcasted live on Weibo garnering 700,000 impressions from first-tier cities in China.

Does corporate social responsibility differ from region to region? Do approaches to it in, say, Malaysia differ from that in Hong Kong?

When planning and implementing corporate social responsibility programmes, it is important to understand the local culture and the dos and don’ts, especially for international companies. For example, the needs of one country can differ from another, which can range from education, medicine or the preservation of cultural and historical assets. One country may believe that there are no serious issues whatsoever, yet for an outsider, he/she may see some glaring problems. Religious matters should certainly not be meddled in, as different countries have their own unique policies in this regard. In Hong Kong, being an international city with residents from around the world, we are used to having a variety of events organised consecutively and even concurrently. In Malaysia, where people from different cultures have deeply entrenched attitudes and practices, a more cautious approach is needed when staging corporate social responsibility events, or any event for that matter.

“Many deals that fail half way are due to individuals who suddenly appear to disrupt the process. That’s why it is important to try to develop good rapport.”

Another aspect of your work is helping international brands enter the Asian market: what do companies need to establish a presence there?

They need good government relations, good media relations, adequate market research to help them understand what the market prefers and needs. They also need to offer a compelling story to the local market, and they need to maintain good community relations, including corporate social responsibility.

Richard joins Professor Joseph Sung, vice-chancellor and president of The Chinese University of Hong Kong on a visit to an elderly individual ahead of the Mid Autumn Festival.

It often seems that international companies see China as one big monolith and ignore the fact that it in itself is hugely diverse. How do you explain the different markets in China to international companies?

In my experience, international companies are increasingly aware of the diversity of China, especially those that have operations in the country for some time. For a total stranger, I would explain that different regions of China have different cultures, including daily habits, dialects, preferences, and so on. I believe for European brands they can appreciate this, since in Europe there is also a great mixture of cultures given the close proximity of one country to another. For simplicity, we always divide China into several major regions, and not necessarily based on geography, but also on similarities in terms of living standards, tiers of cities and so on.

Richard Tsang

Richard Tsang is an investor relations and public relations veteran with over 25 years of industry experience in Asia. In 1995, at the age of 29, Richard founded Strategic Public Relations Group (SPRG) in Hong Kong. SPRG has become one of the largest public relations networks in Asia and the largest public relations consultancy in Hong Kong. Richard is the global chairman of Public Relations Organisation International (PROI Worldwide), the first Asian to chair the organisation since its inception in 1970. Richard has received 15 awards and recognition for his professional and personal achievements, including 2003 Young Entrepreneur Award, part of the DHL/SCMP Hong Kong Business Awards; Outstanding Individual Achievement bestowed during the 2012 Asia-Pacific SABRE Awards – the first Chinese winner in the history of the Awards; and Asia Power List 2014 – The 50 Most Influential People in PR by PRWeek Asia. Richard has also been included in PRWeek’s Global Power Book 2015 and 2016. He becomes the only agency owner in Hong Kong to be included in the listing.  He is also listed in 2015 Debrett’s Hong Kong 100 – The 100 Most Influential People in Hong Kong. Furthermore, to help foster development of the business sector, Richard sits in over 50 board, committee and advisory positions in business, religious, education and non-governmental organisations.