In our continued discussions with leaders in our industry, today we are featuring an exclusive Q&A with Jim James, Founder and Managing Director, EASTWEST Public Relations.
The following are the thoughts of a smart, powerful Public Relations executive.
How did jumping out of a plane start your career in PR?
At the age of 18 I was selected to go on Operation Raleigh to Australia, from the UK. I worked many hours selling toys, but I wasn’t going to reach my goal quickly enough. As a result, I decided to jump out of a plane for sponsorship. I created the narrative of a young man going to Australia to build water pipelines for aboriginals in the desert and undertake conversation of wild horses in the outback.
I learnt from the gathering of sponsors and the media coverage was that I could get to my goal more quickly through public relations than working by the hour.
What did you learn by setting up your own agency in Singapore, China, India and now the UK?
At the age of 28 in 1995 I set up EASTWEST Public Relations. The industry, and Asia, has changed in 25 years. What has remained the same though is the need to add value with every communication for clients. Clients still need an external counsel to help them to articulate and to distribute the information in a creative and compelling fashion. The key role of the public relations counsel is to take an independent middle view of the client’s business. And when I say middle view, I mean someone in between what the client would say about themselves and what the audience, or the journalists would say about them.
The second thing that I’ve learned by setting up multiples offices is that the motivation of people in all of these countries is the same. PR people all over the world are essentially individuals who like to help others; it’s a very giving industry.
The third point would be that the price differential between these different markets has vanished. In 1995 Asia was a relatively low-cost market for PR, but now Asian cities of Singapore, Hong Kong, Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing, Ho Minh city are comparable or more expensive that western capitals.
Which nationalities make the best PR people?
In my experience the most creative people that I’ve met are not determined by nationality, but by their worldview and their desire to challenge convention. I’ve been fortunate to work with brilliant young public relations people all over the world. The key characteristic that they all share is that they would like to tell a story that differentiates the company from the competition. Certain nationalities are more attuned to challenging convention and to free thinking but the human mind isn’t limited by geography, only by inspiration and aspiration.
How has the industry managed COVID-19?
In my view, the PR industry has a mixed review. At EASTWEST PR we consider COVID to offer the following opportunity to create for clients a PR narrative based on: Compassion, Optimism, Values, Information, Digital.
The reason I say that I think the industry has a mixed review is because I see some companies still communicating with traditional messaging, but with a varnish of health care, and safety related messaging. Fundamentally companies will need to address the new paradigm where health and safety are the central messages, not the additional messages in the corporate communications.
Public Relations agencies and counsellors need to be at the vanguard of educating clients, to realign to the new narrative of what I call PR in viral times. I don’t think we are doing this enough.
Where do future opportunities lie?
In 2015 the interest in ‘public relations’, as shown by terms searched on Google, was eclipsed by the interest in ‘digital communications’. Print has suffered a massive decline as we all know however, there will always be a need for communications. So the opportunity lies in adapting to the new mediums of communication, and to a new era where self-generated content can be as prevalent as ‘official news outlet’ created content. Influencers may not be “authorities” in terms of being given official recognition, but could be authorities in terms of the tribe which follows them; they have defacto influence not dejure authority.
The opportunity for the industry is to help clients to understand this new paradigm and capitalise upon it. We can play the role that we always have of helping clients to structure their messaging and to manage the distribution of that messaging across earn earned, and owned channels of media.
Finally, when I went to Asia we managed PR locally but this is perhaps the greatest opportunity of all; the world is now flat. PR agencies can operate freely on a global stage; and that has to be very exciting for us all.