This year, H+K Hong Kong is proud to share that we are led by a leadership team of five experienced female public relations professionals.

Ahead of International Women’s Day, we sat down for a chat with five directors from Hill+Knowlton Hong Kong and asked them to share their learnings over a career that spans 75 years of cumulative work experience within the communications industry across Hong Kong, Singapore and Greater China.

According to a 2019 report[1], just over half of all women in Hong Kong participate in the workforce, suggesting that more needs to be done to increase their involvement. But there are encouraging signs for women given rising diversity mandates across companies and locations.

This year, the United States appointed its first female vice-president in Kamala Harris, the World Trade Organization appointed Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the first African American woman as the Director-General, Citibank named Jane Fraser as the new chief executive in a first for a Wall Street bank, Bumble CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd became the youngest female CEO to take a company public in the United States and seven-time Olympian Hashimoto Seiko became the new President of the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee last month.

With there clearly an earnest desire across societies to see more women get opportunities to pursue fulfilling careers, we sought the views of leaders from our Hong Kong office on a range of topics. What would they advise their younger selves? What advice do they have to offer to public relations professionals looking to enter the industry? What skills does one need to cultivate to thrive in the sector? Finally, what are the challenges that lie ahead?

H+K Hong Kong (from left to right, Madison Wai, Joanne Lam, Angela Kung, Beatrice Wong; center: Ada Leung)

We distilled their responses to seven lessons that we hope can help public relations professionals – men and women – looking to carve out a career in the industry.

1. Aspire to be an integrated communications professional.

Although we have pursued a career in financial communications, we have had to learn about various aspects of communications – digital marketing, event management, corporate communications etc.

Increasingly, public relations professionals need to acquire a variety of skills or hone their expertise in different aspects of public relations. Clients expect a holistic communications strategy from their partners.

2. Embrace your role as a problem-solver. Be a lifelong learner and Wonder Woman.

“You have to be a planner, a connector, a strategist and a catalyst,” says Madison Wai, Head of Corporate Practice. “From the client’s point of view, they want you to be everything! It’s almost like they think you are Wonder Woman!”

Beyond reputation management, modern public relations professionals must stay informed. “The best course you can take is to read news. Know what is happening,” suggests Senior Director of Financial Communications Angela Kung.

It’s almost as if the line between business consultancy and public relations is blurring in a world disrupted by the 24/7 flow of information because of the internet. As a result, PR professionals need to offer both top-level strategic advice but also display executional capabilities.   

“When I worked in the corporate communications wing at a company in the noughties, my impression was that clients in the past were quite traditional,” adds Angela. “They used to think of us like a call center i.e. a cost center that did not bring a lot of value to the company. Now that the world is connected and information flows a lot more quickly, the perception has changed.”

3. Public relations is a human-centered industry. Empathy is your strongest quality.

Perhaps, women outnumber men in the public relations sector because they are more likely to empathize and put themselves in another person’s shoes. As U.N. Women’s Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka stated in a recent article about female leadership during the 2020 pandemic, “women tended not to focus on the politics, but just on finding solutions, so they would work with everybody”.

It has never been more important to embrace values like inclusiveness, teamwork, empathy, consensus-building and kindness. “In a human-centered industry where relationships matter a lot, that’s highly valued,” adds Angela. 

4. Stay curious but remain open-minded.

“Curiosity is most important for a role in PR,” comments Ada Leung, an Associate Director. “You have to deal with different types of clients from diverse fields so you need to have curiosity to learn what you don’t know about an industry and quickly expand your professional knowledge.”

Not only is it important to know how to represent clients from different industries, it’s important to learn how to work well with corporate communication teams of different sizes. Industries are transforming so be ready to work with incumbents and disruptors alike. Similarly, one should learn what they can about the fast-changing social media landscape.

At the same time, it’s apparent that the world has become increasingly polarized. As a public relations professional, it’s important to have an open mind as one’s foremost task is to advance the interests of a client that are often politically neutral (although they’re increasingly championing certain universal values). A public relations professional should offer neutral and professional advice and not be too quick to shut doors or cast judgment.

5. Be a consultative and supportive leader.

In a people-centric industry, the majority of professionals in public relations in East Asia happen to be female. As such, there may be greater opportunities for advancement for women and there may not be as much of a glass ceiling as in other industries.  

All five leaders commented they were fortunate to be given the support by senior leaders when the time came for them to take on positions of responsibility. However, they believe it’s important to do more than just delegate as companies are becoming more flat in their organizational structure.  

“I aim to be a genuine leader with a human touch that brings the right values to the team,” adds Madison. “We cannot just assign tasks to people. As leaders, we need to show and demonstrate to our team that we are willing to work together with them.”

There’s evidence to back it up. For example, a recent McKinsey study has noted that consultative and supportive leaders (who consult team members, solicit input and consider the team’s views often working together with them) often succeed in building a sense of psychological safety that leads to outperformance.

6. Define the boundaries between work and personal life but do remember that crises do not respect office hours.

The demand on one’s time has increased. In the past, one would communicate with clients or professional partners through email or on the phone. Nowadays, they reach out via a number of channels and there are also face-to-face and virtual meetings that jostle for space in one’s calendar.

At the same time, work-life balance is gaining in importance – both younger professionals and those with families are drawing clear boundaries between their work life and personal life.

Public relations professionals need to learn to balance both demands while also not forgetting to be empathetic towards the client, usually a corporate communications head who is often understaffed and overworked. 

“Think not only from your perspective but try to understand the client’s perspective,” advises Associate Director Beatrice Wong.

7. As the world becomes more closely integrated, aspire to be a globally conscious and culturally intelligent professional.

With an increasing number of companies embracing global ambitions, public relations professionals might need to work on behalf of clients who have a presence in multiple markets. It’s important to be aware of different cultural contexts and also learn how to work with people from different countries, cultures and time zones.

“In Hong Kong, you may have to deal with local, Chinese or international companies. You need different skill sets to deal with different clients unlike in other markets,” says Joanne Lam, Senior Director. “That might mean you have to learn how to deal with media from different regions and it will only become more challenging in a globalized world.”

At the end of the day, a career in public relations can be a fulfilling one where you can forge a variety of friendships and learn a lot. Clients are also turning to their public relations partners for support on corporate strategy, managing their internal communications and in other avenues beyond external communications. As clients have a greater understanding of the strengths of different agencies, they are more discerning, but the respect accorded to the field has definitely increased.