For Ethics Month, I wanted to look at new topics and geographies. Joining me this week is Alex Dance, the Managing Director of ERA Communications in Cambodia.
He discusses several important ethics issues, including:
- What should you do when clients are even tangentially affiliated with a coup?
- The state of misinformation in Cambodia
- The impact of influencers on Cambodians
- Ethical challenges with clickbait
Tell us a little more about your career.
I’m originally from the UK and have a degree in public relations and communications. I had the opportunity to move out to Southeast Asia, specifically Cambodia, five years ago. I was working for a digital marketing agency, and then I moved over to an events company, until the pandemic. That turned everything upside down. Events were illegal almost, so did some, not soul searching I guess, but looking at what I wanted to do. Did I want to be pigeonholed in the events industry, which who knows if it has a future, and what does that future look like? So, I moved into a creative agency.
I was working with the Heineken brands, and then my current boss, Anthony Larmon who’s our Regional Managing Director, sent me a message out of the blue, I’d never met the man, and said, “Hey, we’re setting up ERA Cambodia. We’re looking for someone to head up operations. Would you be interested?”
Here I am nine months later with a team of 10 or 11 people in a new office, so really exciting, and that’s how I’ve landed on this podcast I guess, yeah.
Thinking about your career, going from events to creative to public relations, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted?
I would say personally it would be a client awarding a job to us and then once the job’s all done, “Oh, so where’s my little present?” To that I always say, “No, that’s ridiculous,” and I’m not sure if this happens back home in the UK or the US, I’m sure that there are similar things that go on or gifts, but that is one issue.
But I would like to focus on our company story. ERA Communication originates from Myanmar, based there for eight years. Still going strong, still a team of 80-plus people but obviously last year in February there was the coup in Myanmar. The junta, the military, have a lot of affiliations with lots of companies in Myanmar and they always have, and all the agencies would work with these companies.
However, when the junta come in and did the coup, it’s despicable, it was horrible what they did, so we turned around and said, “We are not going to work with any military-affiliated companies,” and actually cut ties with a very, very huge Myanmar company on that basis and obviously lost revenue because of that. They were one of our biggest earners, but ethically, morally, it’s the right thing to do.
How did you work through that? We saw something similar played out six months ago when Russia invaded Ukraine. As a management team, how did you work through, “Do we want to do this? Do we not want to do this? Is this going to cause layoffs?” There are a lot of factors that you have to consider.
It was compounded obviously by COVID-19 as well, because that had been going on. That was difficult for the team, and I’m not the best person to really answer that question just because I’ve not been on the ground in Myanmar, but essentially what came out of the coup was a regional expansion of ERA Communications, rather than Anthony and team being, “Oh, well this is bad, let’s sell or let’s close down or whatever. We’ve had a good time. Let’s leave.”
Instead of that, he spent eight years building a brand, eight years building a team, becoming part of PROI. He doesn’t like to do things in small measures, clearly, because he turns around and goes, “Hey, let’s open up in four other markets,” so we opened up Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, and that was all last year.
Aside from not working for juntas, which I think is a pretty clear point there, how do you evaluate if it’s a company ethically that you want to work with?
Well, we want to do good things. If a client would come to us and say, “Oh, we want you to defame our competitor,” we’re not going to do that. That’s obviously not ethical. We want to do good things. We want to be on the right side of history. We want to have positive change impact and create the world that we want to live in, through communications.
Beyond your own personal experience, what are you seeing as some of the key PR ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?
Misinformation is obviously a huge one. How do we tackle that as communications experts, because misinformation… It’s such a huge machine and they’re very good, they’re very, very good, and I think it’s education around that to the public and to fellow communication experts. We really need to understand how they’re doing it, and then how do we communicate that that is wrong and tackle the problem. That is going to be a really big uphill battle, especially in countries like Cambodia where social media is where you get your information from.
How is misinformation playing out in Cambodia?
Right, so in Cambodia most people did not have the Internet or Google. Then they got Facebook. In Cambodia, Facebook is almost like Google. You use it as a Google search to find shops, to find things, to find information, so that’s a big part of it. There’s online media as well, of course, Facebook is how the information really gets out here, or through influencers, but again, that is through Facebook.
And are you seeing the misinformation primarily in the political space or in other areas?
It’s a weird one. I wouldn’t say so much misinformation in the political space. Because of Cambodia and the way it is, not so much in the consumer space. It’s a tricky one. A lot of celebrities can be seen to push certain agendas. The private newspapers are affiliated with certain groups, so they are pro certain things. It’s not a free press, so you need to take everything with a pinch of salt and do your own research into it, but sometimes the facts aren’t really there so you just have to go with the story or just ignore the story.
Is the general consumer, the general citizen, taking the celebrity endorsements and all the other things with a grain of salt?
I’d like to think so, but I don’t think a high percentage are. No.
In the United States there’s some very clear guidelines in terms of disclosure for celebrities and if they don’t do it there could be some fines. What are the disclosure requirements for working with celebrities or other Internet influencers in Cambodia?
That’s down to the agency’s discretion. For us, sure. We bake that into the contract. But in this emerging market there’s still a lot to be done.
Even here in the States, I was talking to Troy Brown about a year ago, a former colleague of mine who does a lot of celebrity and sports PR, and he has some clients that come to him and say they don’t want to disclose and will just pay the fine.
Well, it’s also the clickbait as well, isn’t it? It’s the clickbait articles that you see, and people… I would love to know research into this, how many people just read that headline, don’t read the article?
Maybe it is just clickbait and you read the article and it’s not actually about Prime Minister has embezzled money. It in fact, it’s actually he’s found someone who’s been embezzling money, but everyone reads that shock headline and they go, “Oh my God, did you see this?” so yeah, it’s-
I saw that play out recently here in the US. I was listening to Sports Talk radio when I was driving my son to work, and they were talking about the Finnish Prime Minister and how she was caught topless in a photo. I was telling the radio, “No, she wasn’t caught. There were some people around her that were doing that.” It was the way the headline was worded on some Internet sites, and they just ripped and read it and didn’t give it proper context.
I’ll expose my ignorance because I’ve never done public relations with companies in Cambodia. What are some of the other ethical challenges you’re seeing about just doing communications in Cambodia?
Asia generally is pay to play. Public relations really is known as press release, send, paper. That’s how it’s understood. Public relations is not in its maturity yet where we can do galvanizing stakeholders, policy change and all this really exciting stuff that’s really, really, really cool in the communication space and gets me very excited. It’s not understood this way.
Right now, our main challenge is understanding the media, helping to network with the media and explain to them this press release… you don’t just post this press release or publish this press release. This is just information for you to write a kick-arse article. This needs newsworthiness. We know this, so turning around to a client for example… your car battery is not going to get this journalist excited. This is not a lifestyle magazine.
It’s tough, especially when a client in Singapore is like, “Oh, well we need 30 media clippings.”
“Okay. We don’t really have that many media here so good luck reaching that KPI,” but there’s other ways to navigate it of course.
Taking a step back and thinking about your career, what is the best piece of ethics advice you ever received?
I think it was from a university lecturer – be transparent in everything you do. It’s easier that way isn’t it, to tell the truth?
Lying catches up with you eventually, so yeah, transparency in everything you do. Be transparent with a client. Be transparent with yourself. Lying to yourself, I think, is the worst thing. I’m not saying I haven’t done it. But be transparent.
Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here
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