HONG KONG — Panelists at PRovoke’s Asia-Pacific Summit expect digital transformation, more empathetic corporate behaviour and “activism” to define efforts to grow in 2021.

Those factors were identified by the keynote panel at yesterday's Asia-Pacific Summit, which polled attendees and found sustained optimism in terms of business growth returning next year, along with positivity in terms of hiring and investment. 

China—as one of the few markets that expects to see some growth this year—is at the forefront. Elan Shou, executive vice-president of Ruder Finn Asia, said she saw things “almost back to normal already”, with a market rebound following people’s return to regular working life. She pointed to “compressed” demand leading to a surge in spending on luxury items and domestic travel.

Shou said as the head of an agency she had started seeing significant budget increases in the healthcare, luxury, automotive and FMCG sectors from July onwards. “You start to see new hiring of agencies, and you start to understand that they want to put money into the market,” she said. “That’s a very solid reason for me to be confident.” She anticipates more funds being allocated to digital channels, with companies working to convert and retain consumers who would in a more normal environment opt for a traditional retail experience.

Shou also sees internal communications support as an opportunity as, with remote working becoming a fixture, organisations look for new ways to keep staff motivated and socially connected.

For the financial sector, 2021 looks to be not so much a comeback but a continuation of seemingly gravity-defying good times. Indeed, 2020 has been a record year for the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. Tori Cowley, the exchange’s chief communications officer, said she expects growth in non-equity products such as derivatives and ETFs. In terms of industry sectors, she pointed to biotechnology, life sciences and anything fitting into the “new economy” bracket as areas that will lead expansion.

Cowley sees a positive outcome of Covid-19 as being an uptick in sustainable thinking by corporations, which will have “massive” implications for communicators, who are responsible for brand reputation. “I think sustainability will run through almost everything that people do,” she said.

When practised correctly, sustainability means doing right by society. Meenu Handa, senior director of corporate communications for Google payments, Southeast Asia, sees the pandemic making companies more cautious in touting their wares and focusing on “actually being more helpful to our users”. For communicators, this will essentially mean “advocating for our stakeholders” much more than in the past — notably most attendees pointed to corporate reputation and employee engagement as priority areas for engagement.

A further change they will have to address is the expectation that corporate leaders become more vocal about their position on issues beyond the scope of their immediate business, said Cowley, adding that she expects it to be “tough to manage”.

Shou agreed that ignoring sensitive topics, such as Black Lives Matter, will often not be an option, and said coherence of response would be key. “There will be even more activism in corporate communication in future,” she said. “In order not to be inconsistent, you had better prepare.”

The increasing responsibility that communications professionals are shouldering means they are likely to play a pivotal role in driving business growth. But only if they can adapt to the changes the pandemic has brought on, Shou said. For her this primarily means having “a digital mindset”, something many still lack. In addition, both Handa and Cowley stressed the importance of thinking like “business people” as well as communicators. To really be useful, “you have to absolutely understand the business and the challenges that are coming down the pipe,” she said.