This post is a part of the 2021 IPR Future of Communications in Asia Report. Read the full report here.
The eclectic nature of every country in Asia, which has its own unique interplay of infrastructure, media and culture, makes the practice of corporate communication and public relations (PR) in the Far East distinctively different from how it is practiced in Western countries. This dissimilarity can be attributed fundamentally to human values driven by political philosophy and culture. These factors in turn shape and impact economies, activism, media systems and social structures across the nations in the continent (Sriramesh, 2004).
History informs us that PR thrives and flourishes in open democracies where public opinions are valued. This Western concept of a marketplace of ideas (i.e., maintaining that truth will emerge from unrestrained debates, transparent exchanges and discourse) is however foreign to many countries in Asia. The political landscape of this continent is a kaleidoscope constituting of absolute or constitutional monarchies, one-party states, “liberal democracies,” military dictatorship and various forms of independence movements.
As a result, public opinions are not similarly valued as many governments in Asia tend to establish control over individual views by passing laws to invoke media censorship. There is little appreciation for the equality of individual opinions, especially from common folks who are deemed to have little knowledge or are uneducated on governing issues and the “truth.” The elites or leaders who are in positions to influence usually take the lead in shaping, creating and interpreting public opinion. Naturally, the Western concept that prizes the importance of two-way symmetrical communication that drives strategic PR between organizations and their publics is difficult to grasp, let alone practiced, in Asia. More often, the “default” communication model adopted by many communication functions in Asian companies tends to be more one-way asymmetrical or one where information flows mostly from top to bottom.
Compounded by social values that emphasize the principle of placing greater importance of the group over the individual, the concept of collectivism is prevalent across Asia. It proposes that individuals are to forego his or her personal interests for the sake of the larger community in order to ensure progress. For this reason, strong in-group loyalty is a desired virtue, and conflicts are discouraged and best avoided to ensure harmony and unity. Consequently, intimate relationships, social connections and personal favors to achieve business objectives or career
goals dictate the state of play. These entrenched social values that regulate business conduct and direct organizational behaviors are antithetical to the Western reasoning that strategic communication is used to ensure transparency, disclosure and professionalism key to building trust and mutual understanding between the organization and its key stakeholders.
Intertwined and nestled within the practice of prioritizing group interest over self are other cultural values that shape the attitudes and behaviors of Asians. As a whole, the countries in Asia share matching cultural tenets, although the degree of similarity and how they are expressed in each country is different. High in power distance, many Asian societies adhere tightly to hierarchies and deference to authority. This applies to every strata in the society, within families, schools, organizations and governments. Overt expression of ambition that challenges views and decisions taken by those higher in the packing order deemed inappropriate, annoying and unwelcome. Having to constantly adopt conflict-avoidance communication styles, PR practitioners in Asia end up taking orders most of the time instead of utilizing engagement to facilitate conversations for greater understanding and acceptance like those practiced by their Western counterparts.
Although countries like Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan have achieved a high degree of liberalization towards open market economies, many organizations in Asia are still struggling to understand the value of strategic communication beyond its commercial and marketing functions. As such, unlike their Western counterparts, many PR practitioners do not have a seat in the board room, and their roles are often relegated to carrying out technical communication activities.
Hence, given the interplay of complex societal factors, many business leaders in Asia do not see the need to manage the sum of all stakeholder perceptions nor do they see the urgency to focus on building objective and credible corporate reputation. Rather, PR and communication exist mainly to sustain ambiguous and informal structures in order to maintain the organization’s image. On this account, few practitioners succeed in integrating Western democratic values with Asia’s indigenous cultures, traditions and history.
However, technology is stirring up a storm as it brings alongside with it changes that are sweeping across Asia. In fact, Asian countries like China are already on the path to creating for themselves a digital civilization as technology is increasingly used and developed to drive political, economic and social agendas. On the PR front, digital threatens to overthrow the present state of communication as the medium makes it necessary for Asian organizations to place greater emphasis on managing communication with multiple stakeholders. First, the lightning speed at which information travels across the globe means corporate decisions must be made decisively and quickly. This leaves no time and no room for hierarchical reporting, thereby flattening existing social structures. Communication practitioners would further have to be invited into the board room so that they can be part of the dominant coalition if practitioners are to be in the front line managing external publics. Second, online audiences today are highly polarized and as social media promote superficial perceptions that threaten to destroy hard-earned reputations overnight, the communication function will be tasked with the need to engage in two-way symmetrical communication in the ‘harder to censor and regulate’ digital space if organizations wish to be better understood. Third, with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing employees in Asia to work mostly online and from home, PR will have to help manage or take over internal communication, which is key in shaping organizational culture and ensuring consistency in organizational narratives. This enlarged job portfolio aids to bulletproof and secure a stronger anchor as an indispensable function in the organization.
As a result, despite constraints imposed by the interplay of infrastructure, culture and media landscape on many Asian companies to be able to purposefully use communication to fulfill its corporate mission, the current trajectory of the future work of communication in Asia seems promising. With the advent of technology, the expansion of the digital space and continued economic development in some regions, it is optimistic to project that infrastructure is likely to produce a more favorable environment for strategic communication in Asia. Culturally, Asia is also beginning to conceptualize its own version of strategic communication and recognize its value in having to build corporate reputation in the digital era. With the rise of social media, technology-based communication platforms and the influence of foreign media outlets, the strategic value of communication and the PR function is likely to be elevated as organizations are increasingly exposed to public scrutiny as well as the influence of an internationalizing mediascape. Ultimately, the road toward crafting the Asian concept of strategic communication is a dynamic and transformative path that will likely develop further into the future.
Su Lin Yeo, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Communication Management (Practice) at the Lee Kong Chian School of Business, Singapore Management University (SMU). She is also the Director of the IPR-SMU Alliance (Southeast Asia). She is also an IPR Trustee.
Sriramesh, K. (Ed.). (2004). Public relations in Asia: An anthology. Thomson Learning Asia.