ViewPoint

Oct 11

Think Global, Act Local: The Challenges of Multinational PR

By James Kelliher, Chairman & CEO, Whiteoaks Consultancy

Let me start by declaring, unashamedly, that I love working with American clients.  Many of the most innovative products and services we see in the world today were born in the U.S.A. And the American ‘can do’ attitude quite simply gets stuff done.

As one of the United Kingdom’s leading technology PR agencies, Whiteoaks has had the pleasure of representing many U.S.-based global companies and running large multinational campaigns on their behalf – across Europe, Asia-Pacific, the Middle East, Africa and beyond. There are however a range of challenges for U.S. companies thinking about implementing successful global campaigns. For the purposes of this blog, I will focus on the two I see most often: language and local knowledge.

Annoying as it is (for us Brits as well) the rest of the world doesn’t just speak English. The British solution to this problem, certainly when we’re abroad on vacation, is to simply talk slower, louder and with the use of exaggerated hand gestures. Sadly, the same ‘solution’ doesn’t quite cut it for professional companies wishing to authentically engage with local journalists, analysts, influencers and end-audiences.

To put it bluntly, a global company claiming to be investing in a local market and local customers must be able to field local spokespeople, speak local language and use local materials addressing issues and topics relevant to that local market. To do anything else will, at best, lack credibility. Worse, it can be perceived as detached and arrogant.

This can be challenging, even when thinking about managing the approval of materials. A few years ago we were representing a global U.S.-based software company. We were managing more than 20 agencies operating across more than 30 different countries in the Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) region. The U.S.-based CEO then decided she wanted to personally review and approved all press releases.

This was a big client with four separate divisions producing, on average, two press release per division per month.  I’m not great at math (that’s why I work in PR) but that’s eight press releases per month per country. Of the 30 different countries, at least 25 were non-English speaking. So we were looking at approximately 200 press releases per month across the region. The CEO only spoke English, so we did a very quick estimate of the costs of translating locally produced materials into English (for the CEO to approve) and then translating them back again for use in country. To cut a long story short, the CEO decided she didn’t need to approve the press releases anymore and would entrust the task to her local teams!

For another U.S.-based client, we organised a press briefing for the CEO in London with the Financial Times. This time, while language was not an issue, a lack of knowledge of the local market was. As is always the case, we prepared extensive briefing materials for the CEO, covering issues specific to the U.K. and Europe, a selection of relevant U.K. customers and information about the U.K. operation. Sadly, the CEO declined our requests for a pre-briefing and assured us he had read the briefing materials, and was fully prepared for his engagements with the media.

Very soon into the briefing it was clear this was not the case. The CEO only talked about the U.S. market – he only referenced U.S. customers and U.S. initiatives. The result was an unimpressed journalist who didn’t have any relevant content and was left with the impression that the CEO didn’t know anything about the U.K. market, didn’t care about his U.K. customers and didn’t prepare correctly for media engagements. A quick damage limitation exercise was required to ensure something along these lines was not actually published.

While some elements of a global PR campaign can be managed from the centre e.g. positioning, messaging (to some degree), reporting mechanisms etc. other aspects do require a local flavour. At Whiteoaks, with our Whiteoaks International Network (WIN) of partner agencies, we combine these centralised elements with local owner-managed agencies on the ground. The partner agencies can navigate clients through the potential hazards of issues such as language, culture and local knowledge, to deliver tactical campaigns that are effective in local markets while still achieving the client’s global objectives.

James Kelliher is Chairman & CEO of Whiteoaks Consultancy. In October 2016, Version 2.0 expanded its partnership with Whiteoaks to become a full member of the Whiteoaks International Network (WIN). For more information on the partnership, click here

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