Thursday, February 24, 2011

Lay of the Land

 Party Persuasion & Refining the Roster to Achieve ROI

Image courtesy of Phillip Chiu
One of the first exclusive events I attended in Shanghai was on behalf of a global leader in material manufacturing for luxury cars such as Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati. High net-worth individuals were invited for free cocktails and a private viewing – I attended as a plus-one, of course :)

While approaching the venue I was briefed on who and what to expect. Most guests weren’t meeting for the first time, nor would it be the last. They congregated in small groups, shook hands with one another, exchanged business cards and made small talk while observing new faces in the crowd.

As the wine continued flowing, I was introduced to more and more PR practitioners and three thoughts ran through my mind: Either, 1) I’m entering a highly saturated professional field with loads of competition; 2) this event must have been advertised through a local PR network; or 3) PR in China envelopes far more practices than I imagined.

None of my assumptions were correct. The industry is not oversaturated with pros, but rather lacking quality professionals to fulfil a growing demand for PR services; there definitely wasn’t any advertising for the event through a local PR network, since most of them lack members and value; and China’s PR industry has only recently gained recognition for service outside of media relations and marketing-type roles. In a country where 93% of the population lives outside of first-tier cities (according to 2011 stats by Matt McDougall) it’s easy to see how the concept of public relations could be beyond the scope of those who aren’t directly connected to a business environment. Still, most people at the event were local Shanghainese, with the exception of a few from Hong Kong and Beijing. These people knew what they were talking about. However, although they claimed to be in the industry, not one of them mentioned a current client or project.

A few glasses of wine encouraged personal storytelling and whether Mr. Ma was really born into Chinese nobility and had a girlfriend in every European country or not, I was definitely indulging the possibility for everyone’s amusement. It wasn’t until the next day that my companion, who accompanied me to the event, started pulling business cards out of his pockets and reference-checking them via Google. I wasn’t sure why he was doing this, but he assured me that I’d soon see the purpose. Sure enough, the second business card had listed a placeholder web address as the company website. He held up the card and said, “This is how you distinguish the fakers from the makers,” and tossed the card in the trash.

A business card represents a miniature portfolio that is indicative of a person’s identity and business potential; and that day, we discovered six “faker” cards among the stack received from the event. There are obvious signs to look for when analyzing business cards – for example, card design, listed services, inactive email addresses and virtual offices. If people cannot adequately brand themselves, why would a client expect their services to be any different?

I was instantly curious as to why people would attempt to fake a profession and indulged any chance to make a connection to the idea [to be further explored in the next blog post].
Maybe the self-proclaimed PR people at the event were masking a less respected profession. It had become fairly obvious at this point that most of them weren’t in public relations. Deductive reasoning led me to conclude that the self-branding phenomenon was result of both misinformed and misleading individuals who simply decided that public relations sounds better than party host and chose to identify themselves using the former of the two. This sort of behaviour is not unique to our profession either. I’ve heard multiple stories of people being caught faking it before reaching an opportunity to begin making it, so to speak. I guess these are the lengths that people have resorted to in such a heavily populated and competitive work environment.

Getting back to the story, the same crowd of so-called elites gathered again a few weeks later for a diamond viewing; after that was a club opening; and after that… well, you get the point. Any day of the week, these people show up at ‘exclusive’ events to sniff out those with actual credentials and try to make a name for themselves. The funny part is that less people with credentials turn out each time and all that’s left is a bunch of aspiring billionaires with empty bank accounts, sipping on free cocktails, competing in persuasion.

When not entirely consumed by work, a reputable businessperson might occasionally consider attending this sort of event. However, I found that this luxury car interior affair was missing a few quintessential elements to achieve its original purpose… particularly strategic planning and measurable results.

Behind the scenes of the gathering, was an Italian car interior company that hired an Italian boutique event company to promote its services to high-net-worth individuals. The Italian boutique event company then hired a third party contractor with access to a list of such individuals in our particular city. In the end, the hosting company bit the costs of free flow wine, continuous horderve circulation, a ritzy venue, staffing and other miscellaneous expenditures on top of all the planning fees. I don’t recall encountering anyone from the automotive sector who may have been interested in becoming an affiliate or could promote the brand name to individuals looking for custom interior. Nor do I recall anyone showing interest in the company brochures that were still neatly arranged on the table when I left.

With all this in mind, I’m left wondering how to effectively manage such an event. Was it the guest list that lacked a strategic focus? Should there have been more brand promotion or structure to the event? How do you avoid inviting the fakers instead of the makers?

I’m interested in hearing comments and possibly collecting links to similar events that were successful.

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