Tara Joseph: The President America needs (in Hong Kong)

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The American Chamber has broken the mold in choosing a media maven for President. She may be able to show the world another face of America.

It ain’t easy being an American abroad these days.

The shine never really came off Obama’s halo with the international crowd, while the realities of governance sprinkled his hair with grey and tarnished his domestic polling numbers.  But the reverse may be true of America’s new leader – the world may endure a permanent state of anxiety about him. Americans abroad are going to have to work triple overtime to put their best face forward and convince the world they’re open for business and welcome to minorities, women and champions of free trade.

Hence Tara Joseph.


Not like that President – a modern one

While other Chambers across Hong Kong have plumped for former civil servants of one description or another (think about it for a second), The American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong has chosen a modern-media savvy, pro-international business, champion-of-free-speech woman to lead and represent their community. This is the kind of America the rest of the world likes and trusts.

Tara Joseph is no graduated bolshie journalist often found lurking in the bank benches of minority socialist parties in parliamentary democracies. She is a modern journalist of the television era – formerly of Thomson Reuters – and, without a doubt, its first social media President. She brings management chops and a deep understanding of the issues faced by The Chamber – issues that are likely to become more challenging in the Trump era.

“A lot of the stuff I worked on as a journalist was covering the issues that AmCham covers. I covered finance, economics and business news for Reuters for quite a long time and more on issues affecting Asia, the Chinese and Hong Kong economies and politics, as well as US-China relations for the past few years. All these topics have been the bread and butter of what I’ve been covering,” Joseph says.


Sometimes, you get what you need

She’s going to need all her experience and communications skills as the world casts doubt on trade in the Trump era. Discussion panels and forums across Hong Kong have been held where anxious participants seek to get a clear picture of what Trump-era world economy and international politics will look like. On 22 February, Bloomberg co-hosted two sessions with Chatham House on US-China relations. Just a day later, two renowned academics shared their views on a Trump administration at The Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce. The panelists at the events seemed to share the notion that while a trade war between the two largest economies is unlikely, the mixed signals that Trump has sent out both through his rhetoric and appointments are puzzling businesspeople, diplomats and international observers alike.

AmCham naturally is lining up events on topics related to Trump’s trade policies. The new AmCham President, who in her past life was a journalist, may have been dubbed “enemy of the people” by the new generation. (see their recent push back against Trump’s attacks on media here), is keeping a cool head when asked to comment on America’s future international relations, including trade relations, during the Trump era. She took a careful line on his campaign promises and suggestions that Trump might push to quit the World Trade Organisation, introduce a more protectionist tax regime on imports and exports or punish American firms that produce abroad.

Ms Joseph in conversation with CE candidate John Tsang (Credit: AmCham)
Ms Joseph in conversation with CE candidate John Tsang (Credit: AmCham)

“It’s not really for me to say what I think for now, as it’s still early days of the administration. It would be irresponsible for me to weigh in before there’s a real understanding of how the administration is shaping up,” Joseph asserts. Rather, she’s using a lifetime of sorting fact from fiction to protect her membership from hysteria.

“I am trying to demystify things. So I started writing in our newsletter every week on things that happened on Capitol Hill that are tangible, instead of [reporting on] op-eds or hate speech. So I’m really here to talk about free trade, free flow of information and rule of law instead of whether President Trump is good or bad, so our mission is not changing. Of course AmCham is a big proponent of Trans-Pacific Partnership and that is clearly dead in the water, but we will be looking at ways to promote our mission of free trade and to understand what Washington is thinking about.

“Everyone has their own political views, but so far it’s business as usual.”


Show me that spreadsheet

Beyond powerful symbolism, Ms Joseph has the management chops to run Hong Kong’s largest international Chamber (by far).  She managed a global workforce across multiple timezones from New York to London before moving to Hong Kong in 2003. While handling reporting and management at Reuters, she also served on the board of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) since 2010 and was later elected President. During her FCC reign, a major physical overhaul was planned (currently being executed in phases) along with the connected financial planning and a controversial membership fee review.  The latter required her to communicate vision and the Board’s rationale for decisions to members – communication skills needed at any Chamber.

“Now that I’m bringing my background to the chamber and build on it, I’m talking to a lot of people who are involved in this chamber, not to get a quote for a story, but to listen to what they’re saying and to advocate and build ideas. So I’d say it’s kind of a natural progression for me.”


Tweet for victory

So Ms Joseph can listen – but, of course, can project. AmCham has chosen a master of electronic media – and the first ever social media President for the Chamber. She is a bonafide television era communicator and has an active presence on Facebook and Twitter. She doesn’t lobby politicians; she can become part of the show – witness her recent appearance ‘interviewing’ CE candidate John Tsang at a joint Chamber event. Chambers of Commerce traditionally suffer from the communications drag that comes from decision making by committee, but Ms Joseph moves at the speed of social media.

“I’m going to have a video set for social media, and I like doing Facebook Live,” Joseph says of her plans. “But that’s not the only route of communication as face-to-face communications and the magazine are as important. It’s probably easier for me because I understand the different merits of the various forms of communications. You cannot just rely on social media platforms, as you’re only reaching out to a certain group of people, but you have to have at least a presence on social media, otherwise it’s like not being in the phonebook.”

“There’s one more thing about social media: It’s a two-way street. Of course I’m going on to say what the Chamber is advocating, and what we’re looking at, while also being human. The Chamber is a group of people. We discuss, we interact and take pictures, and have ideas about things. So I want to put a human face, a human feel, for the Chamber out there. I also want to hear back. Communication is what social media is all about,” she adds. “The first thing that I’m doing in these few months is putting together an understanding of what the priorities and concerns of the Chamber is, both on the Board of Governors and in separate committees. Building on that, we can make sure that we communicate our themes consistently and over and over again, on social media, in the magazine and in person.”

That membership is growing in diversity and she is keen to tap that diversity. This may be in the traditional sense of  the word, but also a broader sense.  After all, Ms Joseph may be the first female president of The Chamber, but is appreciative of broader participation of women on the Board. She is also keen to highlight The Chamber’s growing diversity not just in terms of gender, but in terms of age, jobs and industries.


Make Hong Kong great again

2017 will be an eventful year not only in the US, but also in Hong Kong, with the numerous political hot potatoes on the agenda, especially the upcoming Chief Executive election. It marks the 20th anniversary of the Handover. Having lived in the city for over 14 years, Joseph has witnessed the shift of discourse from optimism about exploring China’s economic opportunities to concern about Hong Kong’s future over time. One worry she doesn’t have is struggling to get attention for Hong Kong in Washington.

“What I find interesting is that clearly the US-Hong Kong relationship is considered important enough that people in Washington are watching out for what’s happening here. Again, it’s not for me to comment on what the Congress is saying or what acts are being passed, but clearly there is an interest over Hong Kong affairs, and there is a big American community here,” Joseph notes. “I think it is a real time to look back at what has happened over the last 20 years, and where are we going in the next 20 years. It’s a big year in that sense.”

For Ms Joseph, the future of Hong Kong, at least from a business perspective, lies in innovation. AmCham is taking an active role in promoting the notion of a smart city. It recently made a submission to the Hong Kong government on this issue.

“We all know that Hong Kong is on a bit of a cusp, but beyond politics, everyone is interested in the next generation of business and trade in Hong Kong. It is crucial for us to grasp how innovation and technology can fit into everyday business and how younger people, entrepreneurs, and tech people can fit into AmCham for the vitality of The Chamber and more generally of business in Hong Kong. We’re maintaining a good relationship with the Hong Kong government, which is important, but I think people are also looking at how the business climate; the business world is changing and developing.”

While many non-Americans may think that change is alarming, the new AmCham President seems well placed to reassure them that enduring values still hold for the American community in Hong Kong. Her modern skills will be tested to ensure that message comes across locally against the populist rhetoric crossing the Pacific. The American electoral college may have gone one way, but the American Chamber, which has outlasted many White House residents, has gone another. While Ms Joseph would no doubt adroitly sidestep contrasts, she is a reassuring presence for those that wish to see America as a stalwart friend, ready to do business – and do the right thing.

Follow AmCham’s first ever social media President at @TaraJosephHK

(Printer – R&R Publishing, Suite 705, 7/F, Cheong K. Building, 84-86 Des Voeux Road Central, HK)