Making Sense of International PR13 years, 9 months ago
Putting an effective international communications structure in place is a major challenge. Mike Copland provides some informed tips.
These are exciting times. You’re the PR director for your company and the business strategy calls for a dramatic realignment with a major focus on international markets. Sitting at the company’s head office, you are tasked with turning a devolved patchwork of local executives and agencies into a seamless, efficient machine delivering media coverage, political influence, sales leads and much more in numerous countries around the globe.
Expectations are soaring and there’s the opportunity to extend your carbon footprint dramatically. The temptation – and the pressure – to jump straight in, with no questions asked, is strong.
But the fallout from getting it wrong internationally is far greater than a local mishap. In highly dynamic markets, the penalty for mistakes can be long-term exclusion from critical business opportunities. Your role, as the communications lead, is to take your management team through this minefield, often raising unwelcome questions and challenging senior executives about their favourite themes and projects.
Where do you start? The following thoughts are not the whole answer but will provide some signposts and warning notices as you get started.
Is your company ready?
Almost inevitably there will be some degree of mismatch between the strategic wishes of the company and its senior management and the readiness of the troops on the ground to deliver. The challenge is to ensure that enough of the pieces can be put in place to give the best chance of success. The first thing to do is challenge any proposal to extend across borders. The questions need to address the validity of the business objectives, the priorities, the resources available, competitive activity, and the ability to set measurable targets for any communications activity.
Getting answers to these questions, and getting management’s buy-in to them, is one of the most critical elements of success
Get the structure right
There is no single or simple approach to your international communications structure. It will depend on overall corporate business model and structure, and also on whether you are relying purely on internal resources, an external agency, or both. It is typical in international companies to have some element of matrix management. Inexperienced and more junior executives will find this difficult. Make sure that there are clear terms of reference and reporting lines for all involved, that management (especially local) has agreed to these and that you quickly take specific steps to build the personal contacts between the team members.
The cultural stuff
It takes a lifetime to understand all the nuances: all most of us can achieve is an understanding that there are nuances. Read some of the texts on the subject (authors like Hofstede and Trompenaars). Invite an expert on the topic to attend one of your team meetings. Encourage everyone in your international team to share their perspectives on the programme and to engage in any discussion/conference calls.
At a more basic level, ensure that the terms used to define activities are clearly understood. Often the misunderstanding can be simple semantics.
Communicating with the communicators
As with most aspects of life, the majority of problems that occur with international projects are due to a failure of communication. As communications professionals we are supposed to get this right, but sadly this does not always happen.
The basic rule is never to assume anything and certainly never assume that someone in another country has understood a message the way that you intended. So:
1. Take the time to give everyone involved the full context for what you are planning.
2. Set out clear rules for who communicates with whom. Talking to the wrong person is a near guarantee of things spinning out of control.
3. Communicate more than you think is needed.
4. Put in place a regular communications forum – usually by conference call – with a clear agenda.
5. For bigger programmes think about having a newsletter addressing the programme – progress, successes, issues, background etc.
6. Make an extra effort to recognize individual contributions and to share the ideas and the results.
Central control v local delivery
The core issue in any multi-country programme is how far the centre determines what happens locally. There is no fixed answer, however any head office that thinks it knows best is usually wrong!
The best advice is to ensure that you are absolutely clear about the core, strategic messages for the company and that you have a clear roll out plan country by country.
Involve the local teams at the earliest possible time. They must be allowed to input as to how the desired results can best be achieved in each market.
Control the money
Communications, becoming an increasingly visible part of the business mix, are under greater scrutiny by senior management and financial management. The degree of central control of the funding will vary from company to company but, there is usually a need to gather data and manage expenditures. Set it up in an effective and efficient way from the start: do not wait to be caught out by difficult questions.
Be sure there are clear rules about key aspects of the finances, notably:
1. Degree of latitude in local expenditure
2. Whose approval is needed before money is spent
3. That there is a clear template for reporting budget allocation and usage
4. Which currencies are used and how changes in exchange rates will affect programmes
5. Local VAT and other tax issues.
Finally, successful global campaigns acknowledge the realities of local conditions and needs. They must have a solid strategic core that sits over all the activity. Allow your local teams the freedom to make the campaign work in the best way locally, but never allow them to hijack the programme and destroy its central purpose.
Mike Copland, Director, International Partner Relations, Pleon Europe.mail the author
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