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Interview with Belinda Chan, CEO of Creative Consulting Group, Hong Kong, and Member of the Board of Public Relations Network (PRN)

“Now is a good time to embrace innovative ideas”

Sales slumps, short-time work, and business closures: the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on companies worldwide is massive. How can the economy get back on track quickly after the shutdown? Assessments by experts from different areas of business and politics in the joint series of interviews conducted by CONCEPT AG and Sympra GmbH (GPRA).

Belinda Chan, CEO of Creative Consulting Group, Hong Kong, and Member of the Board of Public Relations Network (PRN)

Belinda, in the last months, Hong Kong’s economy was shaken twice: first the government protests, then with COVID-19. How have you dealt with these challenges?

Hong Kong has been experiencing an unprecedented amount of challenges since June 2019, first with the heart-breaking anti-government protests raging on until the end of 2019, then followed by the outbreak of COVID-19 in January 2020. While the protests halted traffic and normal daily lives of all of us, regular checks on where roadblocks and police or protestor cut-off points were, in addition to tear-gas experiences became a routine for us. Retail and food & beverage were hard hit by protests as they rampaged through streets and into shopping malls and shops. Yet corporate offices were largely untouched but the overall image of Hong Kong as the world-class city was dragged to an all-time low. As a local agency focusing on mainly B2B communications, we were faced with a whole set of new questions from clients: should we move events from Hong Kong to elsewhere in Asia? Should we stop inviting government guests to events? How to handle staff’s different political stand points? A lot more consideration has been taken into ensuring safety as well as ensuring political neutrality. New communications plans and focus were created to tackle the new culture.  Unfortunately, when we were finally in peace after protests quieted down, Hong Kong was the first city outside Mainland China to be hit by COVID-19. When the virus first hit the community, we were largely unaware of its power and how we should manage it.

The impact of COVID-19 has proven to be much more destructive and long-lasting compared to the protests. It is quite hard to imagine streets, shops, offices, schools and restaurants all empty for weeks. During the worst time when COVID-19 slowly turned into a pandemic, there was a short phase in Hong Kong when everything stood still, with everyone figuring out new ways of survival. At first all business discussions happened in calls. Soon board meetings, mini seminars, innovative concerts all took place online through a variety of video conferencing tools. We have embraced readily-available technologies at work and also at home. During that difficult time for all, we have never ceased our efforts to ensure our stakeholders that we would plan and execute communications in a professional manner. It is also crucial for us to show enough confidence to clients that business has to go on despite the challenge, as there is always a way forward. Despite the terrifying virus attacking all communities and, sadly, the loss of valuable lives, we have seen the most warming acts of love aiming to help out those in need: the sharing of precautionary materials, donations to hospitals and care for people who are homeless.

Weeks after the outbreak, luckily Hong Kong has slowly recovered from the crisis with business and life back to about 80% normal. Yet I would expect the use of technologies and the awareness on anti-COVID-19 measures to become our new normal for years to come.

You have conducted a survey with the members of our international PR agency network, PRN, on lessons learnt during COVID-19 crisis. What were the results?

By end of April, we had invited all regions covered by PRN to send use their insights on combating COVID-19. Twenty-one regions responded and a summary of insights is below:

  1. 85% of covered regions confirmed the importance of strengthened communications in adverse times which is the key to stabilize morale and to accelerate the pace of recovery. PR professionals, as key players in communications, play an important role in reinforcing messages and correcting wrong perceptions.
  2. 50% of them highlighted the importance of utilizing this crisis period as a perfect time to rebuild/ strengthen the team, especially on how to create more values for clients and how to step up on communications preparedness.
  3. 40% of them reflected that now is a good time to embrace innovative ideas, may it be new ways to communicate, or new formats of promotions or events. Now is a time for us to invent and build on the new normal that we have to live with in the near future.

With economies of all regions negatively affected by COVID-19, it is inevitable to see changes in fundamental supply chain and inbound/outbound trade management.

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In situations like the current one, planned communication is crucial. How could PR agencies support, according to your survey?

Seamless communication with clients to ensure they fully understand the issue is crucial. According to the agencies, extra thoughts on how to communicate love and care at this difficult time is also essential to make the story/message complete and also allow it to reach out far and deep among the target audience. Timeliness in communicating necessary messaging to stakeholders is also important as they are also anxious to get answers. PR agencies now play an increasingly important role in the whole process of communications planning and rollout as audiences are generally sensitive to tone of voice and content; also, messaging needs to be sharp and clear so as not to be over-shadowed by the over-crowded space with COVID-19 news. Utilizing PR’s unique skill in identifying the right moment to disseminate a message is also a key factor to win over stakeholders’ perspectives.

Germany is an export nation with many companies having a local presence worldwide. Based on your and your clients’ experience, do you think that, after COVID-19, previous supply chains will continue or will protectionist tendencies increase?

With economies of all regions negatively affected by COVID-19, it is inevitable to see changes in fundamental supply chain and inbound/outbound trade management. As countries become more protective of their own economy so as to ensure post-COVID-19 recovery, it is expected they will use whatever tools possible to strengthen their own economy as a means of survival. Having said that, clients are still, in general, optimistic towards recovery and are aggressive in making sure it will happen. Yet, such mentality may be industry specific. There may be inevitable close-down of certain big players in certain industries. But at the same time, new business models may emerge with this acute disruption brought forward by COVID-19.