Shifting challenges of working in corporate & financial communications from London to Dubai to Hong Kong
With the recent launch of Hanson Search Hong Kong, we’re looking into the careers of communications professionals with global experience – particularly in Asia – to better understand the nuanced difference across regions and cultures.
For our first interview, we spoke with Sam Turvey, Partner at Maitland. Sam is a communications advisor specialising in building strong corporate profiles and guiding senior leaders through critical situations including M&A, fund raising, market entry, crisis and internal change. His career in financial PR has taken him from London to Dubai to Hong Kong and back again.
Read on to find out more about how Sam made the transition from financial PR across the globe and the biggest differences and challenges he found along the way.
How did your move abroad to the Middle East come about?
I was working in financial PR in London and several of my clients were either based in the Middle East or international companies with significant earnings stemming from the region. Somebody in recruitment noticed this combination and paired me up with Bell Pottinger in the UAE, which was actively looking to develop its financial offering.
I’d been working in London for a good length of time and saw this as an opportunity to broaden my perspective. Plus, I was eager for some sunshine after another bleak UK winter!
What about Hong Kong? How did you end up making the move from the Middle East to Asia?
This was an internal move at Bell Pottinger. My nearly four years in the Gulf had been a success and the business had grown and matured. Although it was a difficult decision to leave the MD role in Dubai, I was handing over to strong people and was genuinely ready for a new challenge and a larger market.
Asia had always appealed, and I’d been travelling there a lot in previous years, so when the opportunity arose to fill the MD vacancy in the firm’s relatively new Hong Kong office, I threw my hat into the ring.
You’ve worked in financial PR in vastly different markets: London, Dubai, and Hong Kong. What major differences have you found?
There are lots of obvious cultural and linguistic differences between the markets I’ve worked in – and generally-speaking the PR industry is more developed and understood by clients and company senior managers in the West – but ultimately the core skill requirements remain the same wherever you are.
When working outside your “home” market, you must proactively try to learn about the nuances of the economic and political landscape you’re operating in, as well as the media, online and business communities, if you’re going to advise clients correctly. But, you also still need to have big ideas, be a strong writer, prepare thoroughly, etc. Those things are universal to PR.
As a manager in Dubai and Hong Kong, I found one of the biggest challenges was putting together the right combination of people and skills to deliver for a client, whilst at the same time holding a decent fee margin. It is not always as straightforward as it might be in London or New York.
Are the challenges facing the comms industry similar or different across those three geographies?
The trend of clients wanting a PR agency to be able to seamlessly morph from one task to the next, regardless of how different they might be, is an increasingly global one. Being able to do this is a real advantage in terms of demonstrating value to a client, but I don’t think many firms are doing this properly yet. Perhaps a few of the big global firms are but they also can suffer from being considered too generic or lacking in substance or specialism. It’s a tricky one to get right.
The more interesting challenge across geographies is ensuring the industry keeps being advanced in terms of how it is perceived by senior management teams. In the West, many large companies see their comms people as indispensable protectors of corporate reputation. But, in some emerging markets, the comms person may not even have met the boss and is mostly an event organiser.
This is changing though, crisis by crisis, deal by deal, and particularly as companies go global and confront new types of media and consumer sentiment. I’ve written quite a lot on this issue when it comes to Chinese firms making acquisitions in Europe and the US.
Having returned to the UK after six years of working abroad, how has the comms industry changed in London?
There are a few more obvious things that have changed since I left in 2012.
In-house teams seem to be stronger than ever and are very much looking for agencies to challenge them and show added value beyond the basic arms and legs stuff. That is the sort of relationship agencies should embrace really as it offers a chance to engage more meaningfully in strategy and to be much more creative.
I also think the UK industry is having to continually keep apace with the media’s frequent disruption and evolution. There’s so much content online line it’s difficult to cut through or know where your audience will be. There are always new and popular titles, and more and more traditional news media is behind a paywall. The whole dynamic of how you reach your end audience has shifted quite considerably, as has what a client perceives as good. No longer is it just about that nice article in the Financial Times – what about LinkedIn, what about reaching that group of analysts reading Wired, how can we do something different for our capital markets day?
Finally, from a financial PR perspective, there seems to be less “PLC” work going around. That is helping listed companies with their stock market announcements, results, directorate changes and such like. This is partly because there are fewer listed companies being supported by stronger in-house teams. The knock-on effect has meant financial PR firms are now actively pursuing more corporate briefs, crisis, and diversifying into public affairs or change communications to pair with their financial offer.