Masters of the field hold the key

Updated: 2011-11-18 08:49

By Olivier Ruelle (China Daily)

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PR industry needs more infusion of dedicated, highly knowledgeable professionals

Long before I entered the public relations industry, most PR agencies operating in China were mainly busy planning and implementing events but were seldom acting as their clients' strategic partners. Communications were mainly oriented toward the general public, with consumers "in general" as the principal target, or government officials. The word "stakeholder" did not exist yet. Today, the situation is dramatically different.

In 2011, good agencies operating in China have become strategic partners for their clients, providing high-value counseling, identifying the latest market trends and helping brands remain relevant to Chinese consumers and corporations better engaged with stakeholders.

One of the main characteristics of PR work today is to make sense of the incredible fragmentation of audiences and media. This is especially true in China. Communications must be highly sophisticated in order to target the right people at the right moment. For example, you have to be aware of how the "post-80s" and "post-90s" generations consume information and adapt your style and content to their needs, otherwise you will not be able to reach them.

When we talk about the fragmentation of audiences and media, we cannot avoid talking about new media. Weibo is the fist that comes to mind, a platform now used by more than 200 million people in China even if it only appeared in this country less than three years ago. It has already changed the way companies engage their stakeholders, by creating a two-way platform for communication. I think we will see more changes like this in the future.

Talking about specialization leads to another challenge in the industry: Striking the right balance between specialization and generalization. Communicating in the healthcare sector is different from that in the automobile industry and there is indeed a growing need for a high degree of specialization.

Nevertheless, while specialization is unavoidable, I believe that a good PR practitioner should have experienced a few sectors before fully opting for one area and needs to keep learning across multiple sectors as his career unfolds. Otherwise there is a risk of being a 'mono-specialist' with little understanding of all the aspects that a full-fledged communicator should understand and master.

For example, no matter in which sectors your clients are evolving, you need to have a solid understanding of digital communication and corporate social responsibility.

Additionally, keeping an eye on an ever-evolving China regulatory environment is essential. From healthcare reforms to IPR laws or the Labor Law, the PR practitioner needs to navigate the societal and regulatory changes to ensure maximum impact with minimal risk to his clients.

As you can see, being a good PR practitioner in China is not easy. The industry requires dedicated, well-rounded and highly knowledgeable individuals. This is why attracting and retaining the best people is so important. The market has exploded faster than the supply of experienced PR practitioners, and a growing number of companies are fighting for the same limited pool of talent. To address this challenge, every PR agency must strive to build a company culture where employees feel comfortable and valued. And the industry should do more to promote PR among potential and future talents as what it is: a challenging but interesting and rewarding sector.

One of the most interesting but challenging things is to help companies build brand value. A crucial change that has taken place in recent years in China is communication is now more brand-centered and less product-centered - every communication step can potentially strengthen (or damage) a brand. Building brand value constitutes the core of our work and of what PR is about: helping corporations to establish, consolidate, protect and sometimes restore their reputation. This is a challenge that I enjoy tackling every day.

The author is head of insight, Ruder Finn China.