Chris Tang knows how to frame her message, or anyone else’s come to that. Her role as managing director, Asia-Pacific for the Hoffman Agency makes her a leading voice in the field of PR and corporate communications, advising clients on such things as brand positioning, crisis management and public affairs.
Tang began in the hotel sector before setting up her own company in Beijing. She subsequently moved to Sydney in 2000 as business development manager for Text 100 Public Relations, where she trained spokespeople for top international companies and worked on issues relating to mergers, litigation and market entry. She talks to John Cremer.
How did you originally get into the field of corporate communications?
I had planned to be a diplomat or a foreign correspondent for Xinhua, but changed my mind when I was studying a postgraduate journalism course in Beijing. I realised that being in communications would let me use my abilities, but also give more “freedom of will” in deciding my future. In 1994, the best opportunities in China for this kind of work were with the international five-star hotels, so I sent off my CV and got a call from The Peninsula in Beijing saying they had a position and inviting me to interview. My classmates saw it as a very gutsy move; 90 per cent of them are now senior editors or reporters with Xinhua.
Which characteristics have helped you succeed?
I’m a workaholic, but I also know when to take a break in order to have a work-life balance. The PR industry is one where even the most senior executives are required to take a very hands-on approach. But I always make sure to look up regularly, so my head isn’t buried too deep in the day-to-day operational things that I run the risk of losing the big picture.
If advising clients on a specific problem, where do you start?
When dealing with a communications challenge, I look at it through a business prism. I may be a PR professionalism, but I’m also running a business. So, having a conversation with clients, it is easy to find common ground, as you know the “pain points” and the challenges they face every day.
What has been your toughest assignment to date?
That was after joining Hoffman in 2008. In my first three months, I did an extensive tour to see our offices in the region and visited the US headquarters to discuss where we wanted to be in three to five years. Then the financial crisis hit and, of course, clients were tightening their purse strings and cutting discretionary spending on PR. Like any business, we need revenue to survive, and it is very tough to stay afloat when no one is putting out bids. However, we survived the downturn and emerged even stronger. It was a matter of making quick, smart decisions, and in the last year, our Asia-Pacific business grew 32 per cent and China sales turnover was up 61 per cent.
What do you stress when invited to speak to EMBA classes?
I usually say there are three essentials for corporate communications. Firstly, you must have a deep understanding of the business; you won’t be successful by just mastering the core skills of PR. The world is getting more complex, with a wider range of influencers such as advocacy groups and brand evangelists or detractors. You need to know their agenda and motives, and see the implications of the growth of search engines. Next, you must master the art of storytelling in a sophisticated way to make sure your message is heard “above the buzz”. And finally, you have to realise that giving the corporate viewpoint is no longer about “command and control”. Instead, PR professionals have to help clients engage in a two-way conversation online and offline. They need to understand the audience, the objectives, and the use of new technology to achieve better engagement.
What has most impressed you about China’s economic transformation?
I was born in Jiangxi Province during the Cultural Revolution, so I’m one of the generation that has been through amazing, drastic changes. My parents’ feeling is that they have seen something almost unbelievable during their lifetimes. But for me, it’s even more, because I’ve also had the chance to visit the “outside world”. The most eye-opening thing when I travel is how fast China is still moving compared to developed countries; some cities have hardly changed in the last 20 years. That makes me realise how exciting and enriching my life experience has been compared to most of my counterparts around the world.
At present, what are your major personal ambitions?
Well, I’m expecting, so the first thing is to have a happy, healthy baby in December. Taking a longer-term perspective, though, I hope that one day when I’m semi-retired, I can teach at a university. Public relations in Asia is still a pretty new profession and I would like to share my experiences and contribute by passing on the lessons I’ve learned. Somewhere in the future, I’d also like to run a café on Bondi Beach in Sydney, not to work, just to sit there reading and enjoying the sunshine.