It felt like a lifetime, but when I checked the progress of our journey to Bali on my screen, we still hadn’t crossed the Australian border near Darwin. “Australia is such a big country”, I thought to myself. But then in a flash, it was wheeled down and we had arrived in Indonesia. The proximity caught me off guard. Australia is on the doorstep of the fastest-growing region in the world. It might seem obvious, but in my day to day existence, I’d never given it too much thought. Now I can’t stop thinking about it. The potential for Australia to make a contribution in the region is unique and it’s big. Very big.
I was in Bali to present the preliminary findings of our Australian National University research project (on content communication methodology) and to attend the first Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) PR conference, staged by the ASEAN PR network and the Global Alliance. In rather nice accommodation (the Trans Hotel, I highly recommend it), about 30 minutes from the airport, communication and public relations professionals from across Asia and around the world gathered to discuss the challenge of “Communicating ASEAN’s global competitiveness”.
At the end of the three days, I’m not sure this question was ever adequately addressed or answered. However, it’s clear that much more needs to be done at home before ASEAN can take on the world. There was widespread acceptance that while ASEAN has been a remarkably effective force to construct peace and prosperity, it has, at least so far, failed to capture the hearts and minds of 650 million people who call the region home. There was a discussion about how best to turn this around. How can the ASEAN community share the unique qualities and diversity of the individual ASEAN countries? It’s been done in Hollywood and Silicon Valley, so what strategies can be adapted from these cases? For example, how do you make Malaysian content popular in Vietnam? How do you harness the influence of the cultural superstars of the region who have massive social media followings, to make an impact amongst local people?
I was struck by the humility of the discussion. “Two ears, one mouth” is a truism of effective communication and the Asian people live it every day. They don’t presume to lecture. They listen carefully and respond thoughtfully. They want our support and aren’t afraid to ask for it. On day one of the conference, the Indonesian Minister of Communication and Information Technology, H.E Rudiantara, addressed his remarks to the visitors from the West, saying clearly “We need your skills”.
The opportunity for Australia is immense. Take a look at the numbers of ASEAN. 10 countries, 639 million citizens, a combined GDP of $2.55 trillion. In Indonesia alone, there are 265 million people with 170 million millennials. In communication education, training and consulting there is a vast need. We know of the massive shortfall in communication professionals in Australia. Imagine what the challenge is across the ASEAN nations. So, I would encourage anyone with an interest in the future to reach out and find your people in the ASEAN group. Make the effort to get out from behind the desk and start creating the friendships that will sit at the heart of a mutually beneficial, long-term relationship. The welcome mat is out. We just need to knock first. I can guarantee you the door will be opened.