Telum Talks To... Matt Stafford, APAC President, BCW

Telum Talks To... Matt Stafford, APAC President, BCW

BCW (Burson Cohn & Wolfe) launched its Navigating Asia’s Rise and Geopolitical Implications offering at the end of 2020, aimed to help global clients manage risk and opportunities across key markets in the region. Telum recently got the chance to catch up with APAC President, Matt Stafford, to find out about the new offering and get some insights into stakeholder management.

What do you feel makes Asia Pacific as a region unique from a comms professional’s perspective?
What makes the region unique from a comms perspective is that there is no “Asia-Pacific” market. The individualistic nature of Asian countries means audiences' needs differ greatly from market-to-market. And when your job is to create communications that will move your clients’ key stakeholders, an understanding of local market preferences is essential, no one-size-fits-all approach will do. Digital platforms are a great example of this. In regions like North America, Europe or Africa, the platforms are similar (in many cases the same) except for the language in which they are presented. Asia-Pacific is unique because markets have stronger preferences for localised content and a more diverse range of social media platforms (e.g., WeChat, Weibo and Douyin in mainland China; LINE in Japan; KakaoTalk in South Korea; Viber in the Philippines; and Twitter in India), not to mention local regulatory requirements (e.g., data localisation and anti-fake news laws), making it essential for digital teams to have tailored platform expertise. In the Asian context, cultural, religious, economic, historical, and linguistic factors should also be considered.

Tell us more about the new offering. What inspired it and what do you think is most unique about its positioning?
In the past 12 months, we have seen a growing need for issues management counsel from our clients, much of it in relation to managing COVID-19 responses, but more increasingly a demand for support in adapting to the fluid geopolitical context in Asia-Pacific. We recently launched our new Navigating Asia’s Rise and Geopolitical Implications offering to help global clients manage risks and also leverage opportunities.

This is complex, nuanced work that requires an in-depth knowledge of how to engage the right people, at the right time and in precisely the right way in these markets. There is a right way and a wrong way to do it, and we are seeing an increasing number of brands facing these challenges and engaging us at BCW to help address those challenges.

What are your current thoughts on the geopolitical situation in APAC now? What are some of the key changes you’ve noticed that you think comms professionals should keep a close eye on?
The centre of gravity of the world economy and politics is now Asia-Pacific, and the geopolitics of the region has become more complex and unpredictable than ever. With nearly 60 per cent of the world’s people and now almost 50 per cent of global GDP, we really are in the Asian century. Comms professionals need to stay on top of how the region is evolving and potentially impacting their businesses and clients. We also need to look at what is happening here from a global perspective – increasingly we are managing issues where stakeholders in other parts of the world have concerns about developments in Asia. Undertaking scenario planning in relation to potential challenging situations (e.g., being blocked by an Asian country in retaliation for geopolitical issues) is an important first step.

What do you feel is commonly overlooked by companies when trying to mitigate risk?
There are so many. I find that employee engagement and internal communications are most commonly overlooked by companies. Many issues that flare up in companies that operate in this region originate from employee mistakes that could have been avoided with appropriate risk mitigation. Businesses require an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the evolving risks to their brand. As communicators, we must effectively calibrate and update our risk management strategies for APAC markets, particularly in China, and it is in this area that BCW is notably busy counselling our clients this year. While it may feel safe to stick to the tried and tested, it is now more important for companies to try new, more inventive approaches (using data as a guide) to mitigate risk in this region.

In what ways do you feel COVID-19 has made stakeholder management more challenging?
COVID-19 made stakeholder management more challenging in many ways, the most significant being that we were forced to quickly take our engagement online and adapt to changing stakeholder priorities (e.g., personal health and wellbeing). Businesses that once mapped their digital strategy every three years suddenly needed to expand and scale their initiatives in a matter of weeks. The follow-the-sun spread of the pandemic from Asia to Europe to the U.S. further magnified those communications challenges for us in the region and we have had to continuously reevaluate and reinvent, especially in response to where new pockets of demand have emerged based on new data.

But while adapting to the impact of the pandemic has been a challenge, adversity breeds opportunity: We have seen trust grow between stakeholders and brands where there has been a natural shift towards serving stakeholder needs as opposed to marketing to their wants. Looking to the future, being forced to adopt an agile and creative approach to stakeholder management now will ensure we are better able to deliver powerful counsel and communications to meet the changing needs of all our stakeholders in the future.

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