Recently named General Manager, China, at GHC Asia, Francis Lau chats with Telum about effective PR strategies she uses that entice consumers in the Age of Internet, keys to building an efficient agency environment, and what she thinks is the next big lifestyle trend.
As a veteran who has worked in the PR industry for over 18 years, what changes have you seen in the PR industries of China and Hong Kong, and what steps have you taken with GHC Asia and other agencies to respond?
Having spent my last seven years in Shanghai, the most dramatic changes have been the digital marketing and social media scene here in China, which is still changing every day. We can all see how Tencent and Alibaba have boomed not just in the stock markets, but their e-commerce innovations, from e-payments to robotic logistics systems, are truly advanced and beyond many other countries in the world. There are so many new social media platforms that have been developed and launched – almost one every quarter – some have stayed, some died out, but WeChat and Weibo are still key. WeChat itself is also constantly evolving, so there is always something new to learn every day.
For us to keep up with the market, we expanded our services to broaden our digital marketing, which now includes overall digital marketing and social media strategy, WeChat and Weibo content creation and development, KOL collaboration, as well as campaign creation and execution. We are also able to plan and execute broader digital strategies through partners when needed. We also launched our own WeChat channel as a marketing platform for ourselves and our clients, which keeps our audience updated on the latest travel and lifestyle news and trends.
On the other hand, one of the major changes in Hong Kong would probably be the challenge that Hong Kong has been turning into a small market in people’s eyes – it is not necessarily that Hong Kong is shrinking, but ironically the stronger China gets, the smaller Hong Kong might seem. For Hong Kong to overcome these challenges, I think we have to be more open and embrace the new China. In GHC Asia, we have a Hong Kong-based Director of Integrated Strategy who focuses on business development for the Greater Bay Area to meet market needs.
In the age of internet domination, news disseminates at such a rapid rate these days. What are some PR strategies and approaches that are effective in capturing customers’ and / or consumers’ attention?
In PR, the goal is always how to get the message out by drawing the media’s interest and readers’ awareness, and the first step is always understanding your client’s brand and product inside out, to see what are the goals and results we want to reach before aligning on a strategy and offering the best strategy and tactics for our clients, and then to be able to plan some creative and punchy angles.
In China, I would say 70 per cent of the PR coverage comes from online and 30 per cent from print. I believe this is a good balance for our clients as we use online as a mass approach to blast out news, and at the same time, we use quality print coverage for image building and sustaining.
On top of media exposure, we also encourage KOL engagement and collaboration to get more buzz and awareness to a more targeted audience. Even though we are living in an internet-dominated era, offline approaches such as events and experiences are still very important. It is now more about how we can best sufficiently get online exposure from offline activity, and vice versa, which we call O2O or the integrated approach.
Based on your experiences, what’s your ethos to building an efficient agency environment and keeping employees motivated?
I’ve worked with quite a few big and small agencies in Hong Kong and China with different backgrounds and clients. I’ve observed the good and bad in each company, and I chose to absorb each of their good parts. I believe it’s important to build a good working environment and that comes together from both the hardware and software. In terms of the hardware, I don’t mean moving your office to some grade A office tower, but really it’s about how to well structure an organisational chart, and as well as the space dynamics between each team member to bring out and encourage effective communications. I also believe empowerment is very important, and this comes from observing and understanding each individual’s talents and personality to put them in the right role, as well as effectively communicate with them and motivate them.
The ultimate goal is to allow your team to work happily and productively on their own, but that doesn’t mean that you allow them to be laid back. In fact, people like to be challenged and to be inspired from time to time. Effective training and meetings can help hold the team and their spirit together. Last but not least, I always encourage a work-life balance culture – this not only saves lots of unnecessary meal and transportation claims, higher electricity bills from the air conditioning and lighting of overtime work, but also maintains a physically and mentally healthy team for greater productivity.
You have built extensive knowledge and experiences in various sectors and aspects, namely travel, wine, and design and hospitality. How have these knowledge helped you throughout your PR career, and what is the best way to obtain these know-how?
From my point of view, knowledge doesn’t come only from books but more from accumulated experience. I would say that I’m in an industry where I am lucky to be able to apply my daily lifestyle to work, and vice versa. I’ve always loved to travel and explore new destinations and each trip has given me new inspirations in both life and work. So I would say if you’re in the travel industry, then you must first enjoy traveling.
I would say wine is a bit more technical than travel, in that there is a lot to learn that isn’t just about tasting wine, such as en primeur (wine investment), the wine regions, vineyards, terroirs, variety of grapes and winemaking process. There are also so many countries that are producing wine, and I’m still learning. I began with French wines a decade ago, and recently I’ve invited our newly signed client Wine Australia to give myself and the team a training session on Australian wines, which are quite different from French wines. On top of the technical part, you also have to drink more, and so you will be able to tell people and the media how the wine tastes or how it should taste – it is still an experience after all. If you need a cheat sheet, the internet and smart phones nowadays are always a great tool to dig out some quick information and knowledge.
In terms of hotel and design, I would say they’re more about the experience accumulated from work since I was a junior – there’s no real fast track. It is always important to learn from your client’s background, study their website and their news. We can also learn a lot from the day-to-day communications we have between the client and media, as well as from internal brainstorming and discussions. Thought leadership interviews are a great opportunity to learn, so be sure you are listening to what your client says while you’re monitoring.
Can you share your most memorable PR moment?
It was in 2013, when consumer airline sponsorship was getting more challenging in Greater China. I went to approach Bombardier, a private aviation manufacturer to try my luck, and I ended up with a negotiated sponsorship for a round-trip private jet ride from Hong Kong to Singapore in return for media exposure in some luxury lifestyle titles. I then upsold this opportunity to our client Capella Singapore with the very first private-jet collaboration media fam trip and named it “Travel in Style”. A month later I was on the jet with a few media friends having champagne and lunch from two Michelin-starred Amber while en route to Singapore. That was a good moment. And of course the trip resulted in extensive buzz and feature coverage. Isn’t this what we call a win-win-win situation?
Looking ahead, what do you think are the next big lifestyle trends?
I think jet-setting private luxury travel is becoming more popular. Recently many hotels brands such as Anantara, Four Seasons and The Venetian in Vegas have partnered up with private jet companies to create exclusive experiences for their top notch guests. Coming back to earth, men’s grooming and styling is becoming the next hit in China. As we know, WSJ, a men’s style magazine, has recently launched in China. While many big skincare brands have launched a men’s line, the newcomers and boutique brands are going to a more unisex approach. So I think we can expect to see lots of well groomed and well made up men in China!
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