APRIL 22, 2021
4pm Singapore / 12pm UAE / 9am Ireland

How has the consumer changed the news cycle and impacted PR measurement?


Kirsty O'Connor,

Director of Content, Data + Digital for Middle East + Africa
Hill+Knowlton Strategies

David Soutoul,

Data + Analytics Manager for APAC
Hill+Knowlton Strategies


Data and innovation leads for Hill+Knowlton Strategies in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia joined NewsWhip’s CEO Paul Quigley for a special panel session on the Pulse to talk about navigating multiple market nuances to be locally relevant at scale.


Kirsty O’Connor leads the Innovation + Creative Hub in Dubai for H+K, supporting the Middle East, Turkey, India, and Africa region (METIA). She brings specialisms in social media, data and digital integration to the agency, and sits across H+K’s sector teams to support the continuous evolution of communications.

David Soutoul is the Data + Analytics Manager for H+K Singapore and the practice lead for Asia. His work mainly focuses on uncovering key consumer insights through primary research and social listening, that are used to drive, shape, and validate sharp integrated communications strategies.

Note: This transcript has been modified for clarity and brevity.

Paul Quigley: [Starts at 1:11] So to begin, I’ll ask each of our guests to introduce your regions of responsibility and how you fulfill a data and analytics role in each region. And Kirsty, perhaps you could begin.

Kirsty O’Connor: Yeah, certainly. So as you mentioned, Paul, I look after many things at H+K, predominantly content, digital and data, but my role also sees me look after the Innovation and Creative Hub here from Dubai, which services the METIA region, an H+K-only acronym, which stands for Middle East, Turkey, India, and Africa. But I am one of many hub leads across the H+K network who collectively speak on an ongoing basis from data right through to kind of creative content, and digital as well.

Paul: Actually, if David goes ahead and introduces his region, then we’ll talk about what data analytics looks like for each of you.

David Soutoul: Sure, yeah. So I am the data and analytics lead for Singapore, but also for the wider region in APAC, in Asia. So we have six markets in that region of the world, and I mostly support the Singapore team with a lot of the research insights, measurement, reporting activities, really trying to provide them with high quality insights for us to put together really impactful comms strategies, but then also take care of demonstrating our efforts and the impact that we’ve had on our client’s bottom line. So a lot of reporting involved. And just like Kirsty, I’m also part of the Innovation and Creativity Hub, which Singapore is the hub for Southeast Asia. So a lot of our responsibility is also to roll out new products, to really come up with innovative strategies. So there’s a lot to be done in this part of the world.

Paul: I’m sure. And with all of the different languages and cultures within each of the regions that you serve, being responsible for data analytics, does that mean distributing out tools, workflows, methodologies locally, or does it involve bringing things back to be processed centrally? Could you describe a bit about how you can coordinate across such a diverse region? Maybe David you could tell us about that in Asia Pacific for us.

David: Yeah. So I mean, each of our markets is pretty independent when it comes to data and analytics, but a lot of the framework and the bigger picture comes from us. There’s definitely a bigger strategy that has to be done from our regional hub, but then we let all the other markets kind of decide what routes they want to take, what tools they want to use, and maybe adopt a methodology as well, because like you said, those markets work differently. The data is different sometimes as well. So it’s really hard sometimes to find tools or products that is one-size-fits-all for all of our markets in the same region. So while we try to find those vendors and partners, a lot of the time the last decision is made from the local teams, so they can make sure that you select the right partner to be with and have access to the right data.

Paul: And Kirsty, is it similar for your region?

Kirsty: Yeah. I think the main point here for me is it’s two-way. So as David said, it’s never a global strategy that is then given to a local market and said, “This is how H+K operates. You need to do the same.” It’s very much myself and the data leads from around the world, collaborate, connect, talk about strategy and tools as a team, and each talk about our regions. So H+K’s global offer is very considerate of every single region. And then David and I will take away that kind of thinking from that team, and see how it works for each of our offices at a local level.

Kirsty: So I know, for example, that what works in Myanmar and Bahrain will be very different to how our Johannesburg office in South Africa operates. And like David said, not a lot of the tools and the data sets are available in some of my countries because they’re emerging. So we have to, almost at a region level, find kind of what works for all, but also be flexible in the fact that the local office needs to give their voice to us as well. And if it doesn’t work for them, then we work with them to find the solution.

Paul: And are there are any universal principles or methodologies that you try and make sure, even if the tools and data datasets end up being quite diverse?

Kirsty: One of the buzzwords in comms at the moment is data-driven communications. And it’s no longer about that measurement piece at the end. So it’s trying to ensure that data is always on. And it’s that thing that we do at the beginning to make sure that we’re fueling our campaigns with good data, we’re tracking throughout and making tweaks if we see the need to, and also at the end where we’re measuring, but providing recommendations, insights, and learnings to either feed back into the funnel for a retainer, or know that next time when we do that project, these are the things that we need to do differently at regional level, at a global level, and also at a local office level.

Paul: Very interesting. So data’s coming in much earlier in the process, and is there throughout to inform. And that’s the same principle you’re using in Asia Pacific, David, is it?

David: Yeah. Yeah, it is. Data analytics always comes throughout the entire process of comms, whether it’s in the beginning or all the way to the end. The optimization piece is sometimes a little bit more challenging, but that’s something that is extremely important to our clients. Sometimes there are tweaks to be made along the road, and we shouldn’t wait until the end of the campaign to be able to reflect on how the campaign worked.

Paul: So one thing that I know you’re both of the view of is that there’s been a shift in power to consumers, and that that’s changed the news cycle, and by extension it’s changed how PR should measure, and perhaps where PR should focus as well. Can you describe that shift in power? Kirsty, maybe you could start us on this.

Kirsty: So my career has always been in PR agencies from day one. And my very first day, I always remember how we were taught about measurement, and it would be readership, circulation, column inches, AVE, all those buzzwords that still hang around and haunt us today, but there was never any data going into the beginning of the campaign. So it was always kind of the quantitative output, should we say. If we fast forward to 2021 now, we have all the wonderful things of social media, digital marketing, much improved measurement and tools. And what we can see now is those numbers are vastly different.

So we talk about circulation of a magazine, let’s say, so the circulation is how many are printed and put into newsagents. From that point, we don’t know if that magazine has been purchased. We don’t know whether that magazine was put into a dentist surgery and four people read it. So they used to be a kind of, this was the circulation, and then on average two to four people might read that newspaper, that magazine. Now we actually know if somebody has landed on an article, whether they’ve shared that into their social media, whether they received 10 likes off their share. Added together with everybody else’s, we can actually see consumer reaction, which was never the case 10, 15 years ago. It was very much guesswork. We can see how consumers feel about an article, whether they experience joy, anger, confusion.

So it’s actually very exciting to work in comms now, because we have all of that information, but as David said, we can optimize throughout. So if we see that it’s the emotion that is being received from consumers isn’t what we kind of predicted or planned, we can really dig into that data and find out why it’s inflicting that emotion, and potentially change our course for our comms campaign.

So for me, it’s really, really improved the data in and the data out. And we can actually show clients the real value of our work, which is all driven by consumers, everything is these days in PR, from understanding what our audience is reading. So we can tell, for example, in Saudi Arabia, 18 to 25s are all about Snapchat, Twitter, and YouTube. So why would we talk to them anywhere else? Previously in comms, it would be a bit of a guess on what magazines they’re reading, approach them and hope that it sticks, whereas now we know we go to those three channels, we know that we’re engaging the right people. And if they react the way that we react, great. If they don’t, we optimize and we change.

Paul: And with this shift in the digital ecosystem now, where consumers are deciding what to share, and we realize that Twitter personalities and YouTube can have as much of an influence as a major publication, in some cases, in terms of how people are sharing and engaging, at least online, in influencing consumers. Does that mean media relations, influencer management, all blend together as a discipline in your work now, Kirsty?

Kirsty: So, as part of our Innovation and Creative Hubs across the world, we have what we call Content and Publishing. And that is what we call the who, the what, the where. So the who is the audience. So everything that we do in terms of what content we create and where we place it is all based on the who, which is our audience. So if that age group is engaging with influencers, we go down an influencer route. If that age group is still reading your Arabian Business or your Forbes Magazine, then we’ll still continue to write a press release.

But it’s at that point where we look at the data and go, “Who are these individuals? What do they do, and what jobs do they have? What attributes do they have? Are they on mobile? Are they in social? How do they consume news?” We have all of this data available to us by local market, and look at that before we then go, “Okay, an influencer campaign is right. Okay, it needs to be media relations still. Okay, it’s a big stakeholder engagement piece. It’s social.” All of that data that we create and collect fuels basically what we do next, and that can be a number of things these days.

Paul: And in your region, David, with the empowered consumer, you’ve got a lot of complexity with multi-market campaigns perhaps, so many different languages across Asia. What I’d be interested in is how you get a campaign – I know you had great success with Spotify Wrapped – and then localize? And how that can turn into something that can speak to empowered consumers in many different regions?

David: So Spotify is actually one of our biggest clients in the region. They have a presence obviously in Singapore, where their comms teams is based, but they have presence all across Southeast Asia and in eight different markets, some countries in North Asia as well. But what’s so specific about the Wrapped campaign, which is not a Southeast Asia specific campaign, but a global campaign, so it’s being rolled out in so many countries across the world. But for us specifically in Southeast Asia, while we do get the press release from the US headquarters, the global headquarters, but then there’s a massive piece of work that has to be done from our team here to localize that press release so it speaks to the consumers there, so it also attracts the media.

The media landscape in all those markets are completely different as well. So you’ve got, in some markets, media can be extremely digital, and so they will by default publish their stories on the different social media channels. In some of the markets, there’s a bigger proportion of more traditional media, where newspaper and print is still pretty predominant. Not predominant, but still the majority. And so when we approach multi-market campaigns like Wrapped, it’s really about localizing that press release, localizing our approach. And that’s why we have local teams and people on the ground that helps us find the right approach to localization, but also understands the consumer, what’s their expectations, how they’re going to react to it.

And at the end of the day, the Wrapped campaign is extremely consumer-driven. They’ve put the consumer at the heart of that campaign. It’s about your listening habits, and the artists that you’ve listened to most, and everything like this. So it’s a campaign that is extremely sharable, easily shareable on social media. And that’s a winning recipe, really, for a PR campaign, because once the press releases are out and it’s been published by the media outlets, then the consumer has that power to really amplify that campaign on their own social media channels, and they’re going to share it with friends, with network, with family, with peer, and their communities. And that’s power 10 what a press release would be able to do. So that’s where PR is kind of shifting. And I think the brands that are able to put the consumer at the heart of their campaign, the possibilities are endless for them to be amplified afterwards.

Paul: And were you able to spot and amplify or respond to the campaign in real time? Or in different markets, were members of your team able to see where there were opportunities to amplify something, or respond to something, or otherwise help the campaign as it was flowing?

David: So, I mean, we keep an eye on what’s happening. We keep an eye on how much traction it’s getting. But at the same time, it requires a really high level of agility to be able to react, especially when you look at the scale of that campaign, we’re talking thousands of pieces of coverage, thousands of social media posts. So that’s a little bit more challenging. I think for smaller campaigns, we get the chance to react and be a little bit more proactive, and that’s where trendjacking can be an interesting way of approaching things. But for Spotify specifically, I would say it’s not necessarily something we were able to do.

Paul: I like this term trendjacking, because no one likes to say newsjacking because it sounds terrible. As a term or something, people aren’t fond of it, but yet it’s what so much activity involves now, and maybe trendjacking is a better term. A lot of new terminology, I suppose, coming into the industry recently.

David: Yeah, yeah. I think, Kirsty, you had an interesting case with a client of yours for trendjacking, right?

Kirsty: [inaudible] to be honest, and it can go either way. So recently, we launched a massive project in arts and culture here, and the hashtag was trending. So you have the reverse where you have bots and influencers, let’s say, jumping on your hashtag, with no real relevance to the campaign. So that’s different, difficult for us because then you have what we would say is so much dirty data, where they’re just jumping on the hashtag because it’s trending. And we don’t want to include that in our reporting that says these are the engagements and the success of our campaign, when in reality there’s quite a lot in there that are just using our halo effect, should we say.

But then on the flip side, as David mentioned, we had a campaign here. A few, to be honest. We did a big piece of research, it’s actually a year ago now, on how consumers were feeling around COVID. So in the Middle East specifically, we had quite a harsh lockdown. So nobody was allowed to leave their houses unless it was kind of for one to two hours a week. So everybody was inside, everybody was online, everyone was streaming. So we wanted to see how people were feeling, how their news consumptions had changed.

And one of the trends that we spotted was this, obviously, shop local. So obviously that is big now, but at the time it wasn’t really established. And we kind of presented this to our client Visa, who we work with across CEMEA, so that’s Central Europe, Middle East and Africa. And with the creation of the campaign called Where You Shop Matters. So that was supporting the local businesses around the region with the power of Visa cards.

So it was helping to promote those local businesses, really localized and bespoke to each of the markets that we cover, but was based and born from the data that we saw that consumers were saying, you know, stop supporting the big conglomerates when it comes to supermarket shopping and online shopping, and support the local newsagent downstairs where you would normally buy your milk from potentially. They’re the ones that need us right now.

So it was somebody like Visa coming in, who obviously is a big global player, and kind of pointing those smaller retailers out and saying, “Please support the small and medium businesses. Here’s how we’re helping them connect with our credit card offer.” So I wouldn’t say it was newsjacking. I’d like to say it was jacking for the greater good.

Paul: Which was a great thing. Our data suggested very early on, it was a great, great thing for brands to do. And I saw a parallel universe where I think some people who work in communications felt, were a little more cynical or skeptical when things were happening, like in the UK BrewDog were doing things. But when you look at the numbers in terms of engagement, especially on Facebook, with stories reporting those goods, people doing good, and promoting pro-social activities, they were really, really strong. Our data suggests it was totally the right thing to do.

Kirsty: Yeah. And to be honest, we did look at historic data around BrewDog in the UK. I think a lot looked back at kind of, sounds really odd to say it, but war times, and how Land Rover at that time were helping to provide cars and tank engines, and how that for their brand after the war helped them. So it was trying to show clients that in these times when brands step up and don’t necessarily do it for the PR value, should we say, it does still have a good effect on them from a consumer point of view, because people will remember that Dyson supported with ventilators, and so did some of the F1 teams.

We looked at tourism as well for here, because obviously, particularly with Abu Dhabi and Dubai, massive tourism hotspots. We looked at data dating back to the Zika virus and Spanish flu, and how those countries bounced back after pandemics, so that we could tell clients, “This is what happened in five previous pandemics, and this is what we expect to be the recovery rate for tourism in the UAE specifically.”

Paul: So both of your regions are, I would say, younger in terms of demographics, and very much more maybe digital native as a proportion of the population as a result as well. Are there any trends for empowered consumers, as media consumers, that you think will be coming more to Europe and the US, from what you can see in your regions? And even a specific country or any specific micro-trend could be interesting for us to cover.

David: Yeah. I mean, there’s one country that is particularly on the radar of very big brands, global brands that want to enter Southeast Asia. It’s Indonesia. The population is massive. It’s the fourth most populated country just behind the US, and is forecasted to probably pass the US within the next decade because of its growth. And so it’s a very interesting country because their digital consumption habit is one of the most interesting one in the region. Despite the fact that their population, just like you said, is pretty young, their Gen Z is really consuming everything online. It’s one of the countries in Southeast Asia that spends the most time online, on the internet, whether it’s for news consumption, whether it’s for entertainment, whether it’s for connecting with friends and family, messaging, just staying updated on events.

And so we really see a huge opportunity for brands that want to enter Indonesia to really try to talk to that audience in a way that resonates to them. And that’s also a country where we’ve seen a lot of media outlets being a lot more digital, because they’ve understood that this is how they’re going to get as much eyeballs on their coverage from the audience as possible. So really interesting country to keep an eye on. We definitely see that the consumer in general has been empowered to share as much news as possible online. Engagement is pretty high for that country too.

Paul: And within the digital channels, are they digital native platforms, or are you looking at kind of historical news outlets? Which are more dominant on, say, on social networks, or in the data that you see? Is there more displacement of traditional media happening there even within the digital sphere?

David: Not so much. A lot of the media outlets are definitely present on Facebook. It’s one of the social channels that is the most popular one in Indonesia. That’s where also a lot of the engagement comes from. There’s not necessarily local social media in Indonesia, so Facebook really takes the top of the list.

Paul: Got it, got it, got it. And are there any trends you pick out, Kirsty?

Kirsty: Slightly little bit different to what David’s saying, for us is that, when I first moved here about five years ago, there was that kind of trend of newspapers and print publications closing down, coming back with another publisher six months later as an online only, disappearing again. And then now, there’s the trend of coming back as a social only platform, which seems to be the way of the region at large right now, specifically in the Gulf. It’s different for India and in Africa, but in the Gulf specifically, news is consumed on social first.

The platforms have helped, and this is something that David and I have discussed at length, is obviously now, you’re no longer taken out of the app when you’re reading a news story. You stay in the social apps, and then you can obviously X the box and return back to your newsfeed. Prior to that, you used to be taken out the platform, which the platforms won’t like, because they want the traffic to stay there.

So that has helped those that are online, but more and more often, what is landing here is social-first news. So we have a few. There was a publication here called Lovin Dubai, and then now is Lovin Saudi. And they seem to be kind of moving across the region to create this social-only news platform. Massive Instagram following, they’ve started a podcast, they do a news bulletin every morning now on livestream. And it is predominantly where a lot of expats get their news from, because it’s news, but it’s fun. They also share like fun meme content, things happening around Dubai specifically, and people are engaging with that. They don’t necessarily need to go anywhere else to see that news.

The only thing that we did see during COVID that there was an increase back to online mainstream media to verify facts. So there was a lot of kind of misinformation circling through all of this social… Going into WhatsApp, coming out slightly differently to how it was shared. There was a huge spike in traffic back to the big four media outlets in this region because people knew that if they went to journalism, they would get the correct facts. So we did see news reigning supreme for a good two- to three-month period. And that seems to have gone back now to social-first again.

Paul: Fascinating. That news-supreme trend seems to have been global, based on our analysis of the UK and the US. People wanted to know what was going on, and thankfully flocked to trusted outlets to do it. And the Lovin… That’s very interesting, Lovin Dubai. Lovin Dublin was the first, believe it or not. The company has its roots in Ireland. And I think they take some of that feel-good Buzzfeed stuff, they do digital native and social native so well, and then the expat community is probably the target, I’d say, in most of the markets.

Gosh, okay. We’ve got one minute left. So we don’t have time, I think, to talk about misinformation, because that’s a meaty thing. Cian did pass through an audience question he got. What are the risks to a brand around trendjacking, and how do you avoid them? Is there any planning or guiding principle to avoid the “Hey, you’re just glomming onto a trend” criticism?

Kirsty: [inaudible] Would point out timing. Obviously there was a lot of fatigue when it came to COVID trendjacking. So if you’re not first, or in that first kind of group of friends saying, “We want to help,” and you come out two months later now saying, “You know what, we’ll help now,” consumers are smart enough to realize that either you weren’t straight in there with your hand up, and now you’re just following a trend. The consumer is very smart and can see through that, and will tell you so on social. They can speak directly to you now and say, “Oh, so you’ve waited two months and now you’re saying you’re going to help.” Very similar to how we’re seeing now, particularly in the UK, with obviously the payment back of furloughed funds. Consumers are very angered by that, and are saying so to certain brands. So you have to be very careful with the timing of things, and also the tone.

And we said this to a lot of our clients, if you’re not in that space to be an authority, do not jump on that trend. I used Dyson as an example before where they were able to say, “We can make ventilators. We know how to do this.” You know, they’re engineers, of course they can. But if you’re a beauty brand saying “We want to help with ventilators” there’s no reason. So there was a lot of that. Know your space, and own your space, and also do it in a timely manner. If it’s not timely, don’t do it. Simple as.

Paul: That’s brilliant. Get the real-time, even, dare I say it, predictive data you’ve heard of this year.

Kirsty: Yes.

Paul: And guys, we’re at time. I’m enormously grateful. It’s been brilliant to have you both on. We got to cover a lot of ground there, even more than I thought. We probably got through 60% of our questions. So, David and Kirsty, thank you so much. It’s been brilliant. And for anyone who’s in a position to join us next week, we’re going to be at our usual later time. We’re going to be joining Lauren Powell of PepsiCo in two weeks’ time.

So thanks very much, David and Kirsty.

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