PR industry booms despite tough times
The invitations and 'story pitches' keep rolling in for financial journalists as the spin doctors fight to burnish their clients' images in dull conditions
Deals may be drying up for bankers, but that is proving a boon for their spin doctors in Hong Kong and Shanghai.
As a financial journalist, I have been getting more and more invitations to events and pitches to do interviews.
When I asked public-relations people the reason for the sudden flurry, they pointed to two factors.
Firstly, now that bankers have fewer deals to work on, they have more time to meet the media and promote themselves, aiming to burnish their banks’ corporate images, as well as catch the eye of potential clients.
Secondly, clients typically pay PR agencies fees for their services on an annual basis. So, if say the weak market environment is crimping the number of new products a bank can launch this year, then to get its annual money’s worth, it might push its PR agency to come up with other profile-raising “story ideas”.
Ninan Chacko, the chief executive for PR Newswire, agreed with the theme of those observations.
“Consumers are demanding to know more about the organisations with which they are considering doing business, whether that’s purchasing a widget, donating to a cause or investing in a stock,” Chacko said.
“In order to keep consumers informed and to remain top-of-mind with existing ‘buyers’ as well as potential new ones, organisations, even financial institutions, are looking to establish a more robust picture of themselves.”
In fact, some bankers know how to play the PR game well. They know that when you are the face of your company in the media, headhunters will see your name in the press, learn about your expertise and, maybe, offer you a job in the future.
So, all of this helps explain why PR firms are busy recruiting to serve old and new clients against the tide of weak financial markets that have their banking clients laying off staff.
But as a financial journalist, it’s a bit sad to see many PR firms poaching from the media world, which they regard as a natural talent pool.
Early this year, London-based Brunswick grabbed Christina Pantin, a regional editor with Reuters, to take up a senior position in its Hong Kong office.
More recently, SPRG, one of the largest independent PR firms in Hong Kong, lured Iris Fu, a former chief reporter at the Hong Kong Economic Times, to join its finance team so it can serve more financial industry clients.
Even within the PR industry, keen competition is fuelling an already high turnover rate.
PR veterans say that globally the annual turnover ratio for a major PR firm is about 30 per cent. This year, however, the rate is above 50 per cent at some firms in Hong Kong.
And Shanghai is turning into a real PR battleground.
Brunswick opened a Shanghai office late last year and at least one more British PR firm is mulling a move to the mainland’s financial capital.
But it’s not all happy days. Firms that relied too heavily on business related to the now moribund initial public offering market are busy repositioning themselves.
George Chen is the Post's financial services editor. Mr. Shangkong appears every Monday in the print version of the SCMP. For more, visit scmp.com/mrshangkong