Communications in Asia is a tricky business, just ask any expatriate living in Asia, and you will hear their comical and sometimes unfortunate experiences when speaking with the locals.  This also applies in English-speaking countries like Singapore, sometimes even more frequently.  Even if we are all using the same lexicon, we may not be speaking the same language.

In public relations, it is absolutely essential to understand local communication, to ensure we get the right message out.  A public relations professional is in many ways a cultural translator, translating the message of client companies into something locals can relate to. Interestingly, it is not always necessary to actually speak the local language to get the right message out.  Understanding the content’s appeal and context to the audience is more important.  Priority Consultants, handling PR for Singapore and several other English as well as non-English speaking countries in the Asian region, has direct experience with this.  Account managers/executives at Priority are tasked with developing media strategies specific to each country, despite not always being proficient in the local languages.  Priority’s home market, Singapore, is a majority English-speaking media country; however that does not excuse us from tailoring client communications to local sensibilities.


Is English, English?


In Singapore, communications can seem deceivingly easy, since we share the same vocabulary and can read media stories without difficulty. Many companies are lulled into ill-placed confidence that their British, Australian, or American media stories are understood in Singapore exactly as they are back home. This is a hard lesson learned by the many foreign companies who pioneered the Singapore market.  It is generally well understood by established foreign MNCs in Singapore that English communications must be tailored to Singapore, just as if they were being translated for China or Korea.

Regardless of what language is being used, Asian sensibilities are very different from Western views.  It would be very poorly advised to enter the Asian market unprepared for this. Most Westerners are well aware of the legal, environmental, and linguistic differences, but woefully uninformed about the subtle cultural differences that can make or break a company’s entry to the East.  Public Relations professionals in Asia are required to fully understand both Western norms and Asian norms.  When dealing with clients from a diverse group of nations worldwide, it is prudent for PR practitioners to be acutely aware of Western etiquette and culture while also maintaining knowledge of the home market.  Simply put, Asian PR firms dealing with Western MNCs bear a great deal of extra responsibility in   needing to extensively tailor corporate communications to the subtleties of individual target markets.

(More Than) One Asia


In Asia, even maintaining awareness of the differences between individual markets is immensely difficult.  The cultural norms between say, Indonesia and Thailand are as mutually unintelligible as their languages (completely unintelligible).  Communications for each of these must be customized accordingly, making communicating across many Asian countries extremely challenging.

Asia is clearly very far from a homogeneous continent.  Very few agencies are successful in handling communication across even a few countries in Asia, never mind continent-wide success.  Often, Western MNCs hold Asian public relations agencies to the same performance levels as PR agencies in Europe.  At its surface, this appears initially as a valid comparison, since continental European PR agencies are tasked with communicating with many varied European countries.  On closer investigation, the similarities break down.  European countries share closely connected historical roots with one another.  They have often intertwined culture, with frequent exchange between them.  The European Union is a true community; it is possible and not uncommon to travel between ten or fifteen countries without having to remove your passport from its holder.

The absence of any sort of truly coherent Asian union is a symptom of the almost total lack of historical and cultural unity of Asian countries.  The only true Asia-wide historical events were colonialism and the Japanese empire during World War 2, which many countries would hope to forget.  This makes the communication landscape of Asia very different from that of the European Union.  There are no common references, no universal narratives in Asia.

Despite the difficulties in entering each new market in Asia with an individually tailored strategy, tapping into Asian markets is a high priority nowadays.  Asian economies, perhaps emboldened by their recovery from the ’97 Asian financial crisis, have proven themselves resilient since the global downturn.  With the exception of Japan, major Asian markets have consistently led the recovery of the world, out pacing every country in the EU, the UK, as well as the US.  Asia is the place to expand business in the current market.  To have a shot at their piece of the developing Asian pie, Western MNCs will need to understand how to communicate with Asian audiences more than ever. During times like these, communications experts like Priority Consultants will be in extremely high demand as experienced experts in the area.