At the risk of stating the obvious, culture does matter in international public relations practice.
And not just culture. Other distinctive locational factors enter the equation as well, as can be seen from research recently undertaken amongst public relations practitioners in six countries of South East Asia.
This latest research suggests that matters involving culture and other so-called ‘environmental variables’ are not, as yet, being sufficiently taken into account in the development of public relations theory – and more importantly, in the way public relations is actually conducted in many places.
Amongst other things, the research suggests that in South East Asia (and perhaps elsewhere):
• Senior managers in multinationals often develop PR programs suitable for the countries they come from, but doomed to fall short of success in their adoptive territories.
• The success of PR programs across national borders is often determined as much by mundane (yet crucial) issues as local transport and communication infrastructure conditions as any more obvious "cultural" factors such as local attitudes and values.
• Linguistic factors loom larger than many people recognise in determining adequate reach and effectiveness for PR programs in nations with high levels of internal diversity: for example, varying literacy levels, limited ability to speak the national language of one’s own country in many cases (let alone the international business language of English), problems with translation between languages that are based more on oral traditions than literary ones, and various other complexities.
• Widespread scepticism exists amongst practitioners about the relevance of professional associations, their codes of conduct, and the value they offer to potential members who are located far from ‘western’ centres of industry.
• There is a disturbing lack of practitioner confidence in some quarters for the way tertiary institutions currently prepare young people to face the realities of life in an increasingly dynamic profession.
Latest research: A view from the trenches
These unsettling insights come from a diverse group of 30 practitioners who participated in an online survey conducted amongst PR and corporate communication practitioners in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
A smaller sample of 14 practitioners in these same countries was later interviewed in-depth as well. (The report has been prepared as part of doctoral studies by this writer, who entered academia following 25 years in public relations, journalism and corporate and government communication roles.)
The research has produced some striking conclusions.
In some respects the outcomes confirm general observations made previously by a range of prominent researchers, including James Grunig, Dejan Vercic and Krishnamurthy Sriramesh, along with various collaborators who in years gone by have explored aspects of international and cross-cultural approaches to public relations.
The latest research has sought to add some further dimensions to this: more specific insights into how local environmental variables actually manifest themselves in PR work; and, very importantly, a much greater airing of the views of practitioners themselves.
In this writer’s view, there has been too little research geared toward revealing the perspectives of practitioners – those people who stand in the frontlines of communication and change in societies (and also have most to gain and to lose in knowing what actually works and what really matters at a practical level).
Also, as the pioneering Asia-focused academic Krishnamurthy Sriramesh himself has conceded, most public relations theory and analysis has continued to be ethnocentric, focused primarily on the United States and some western European countries, and thereby leaving a "distinct scarcity of empirical evidence about public relations practices from other regions of the world". As a consequence, the relationship between theory and actual practice in ‘non-western’ locations, until recently, could only be conceptualised or based on anecdotal evidence.
This author’s research seeks to be one of the projects helping make a modest contribution to the profession moving beyond this state of affairs. Given the increasingly complex cross-currents of globalisation, and the emergence of fast-growing young nations becoming better positioned to play a bigger role on the world stage, the need for a more multi-polar outlook seems clear.
Indonesia, to take just one example, is a country fast heading towards a population of 250 million, with a middle class estimated to have grown from around 1.4 million in 2004, to around 50 million by 2011, and perhaps on the way to a staggering 150 million by 2014. Its largest population centre, the island of Java, contains around 100 million people, many of whom speak most fluently a language which is neither English nor the national language of Indonesia. Can countries like this – with complexities like this – continue to be left out of the equation when studying how professional communication activity is occurring in the world?
Perhaps they can be overlooked if what happens in places like Jakarta, Bangkok and Manila is much the same as what goes on in New York, London and Berlin. But if it isn’t.... well, collectively, we all must learn more.
"I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more, Toto"
When South East Asian practitioners in this author’s research were asked whether culture and cultural difference issues could be important factors in the conduct of public relations programs in their own countries of operation, a striking finding was that all of them – i.e. 100 per cent of practitioners across all six countries – agreed that it could be.
When asked whether they felt American and European experiences could be accepted as reliable guides to what would be appropriate and effective practice in their own countries, more than three quarters of respondents – 76.7 per cent – were willing to go only as far as to say "sometimes".
While many said they viewed American and European perspectives and case studies as useful to some extent, others felt that factors such as different stages of economic development, varying political systems and distinctive local cultures imposed significant limitations on the applicability of overseas experiences to their own locations. Some felt that ‘western’ practice and case studies could be taken only as a starting point for further testing, rather than as a reliable guide in itself.
An overwhelming 83 per cent of survey respondents agreed with the proposition that it was important for practitioners to have close knowledge of the particular country they work in. In a related vein, more than 82 per cent endorsed the suggestion that there are methods and techniques which, in their experience, work more effectively in some places than others. The clear implication was that those who knew their way around this could perform much better in the region than those who did not.
The research findings can’t all be set out in full here, but below is a brief sample of some of the first-hand comments offered by successful public relations practitioners in South East Asia, giving just a small taste of how some of their views may challenge those commonly held in longer-established western centres of public relations practice.
From their own mouths
On the problem of getting ‘head office’ colleagues from outside Asia to appreciate the significant nuances of local operating environments (for example in Singapore):
"My global organisation colleagues do not always understand cultural diversity. Many of them think it (Asia) is just a cluster of countries, but don’t realise quite how different these countries are"
"There is a lot of stereotyping of Chinese, Indians and others... In Singapore in the larger multinationals the head of department is often a foreigner. They are inclined to set a program that is right for the country where they come from. There may be in-country teams, but how empowered are they to change things?"
On the importance of understanding the city-country divide (for example in Thailand):
"Thailand still has a technology divide. Remote provinces are very different to the city areas. You have to target audiences carefully – if your target is in a remote area you can’t use the same channels"
On the importance of allowing for massively varying literacy levels (for example in Indonesia):
"Jakarta is a city of 14 million people – less than 10 per cent are university graduates."
On the shortcomings of existing models of "communication excellence" for practitioners working in nations which do not enjoy public dialogue freely informed by a variety of sources (for example in Vietnam):
"I think two-way communication works well when both sides have good access to information. But if one side does not have adequate background or resources you can’t have effective dialogue."
On the value and local relevance of professional associations (for example in Malaysia and Indonesia respectively):
"I haven’t seen the associations as having value yet. I don’t see the value in helping me to network in Malaysia. It just seems like a lot of people sitting around massaging their egos."
"Basically there are quite a few organisations, but I don’t find them useful generally. They’re mostly occupied by people of the older generation who are interested in junkets and furthering their own status rather than advancing the profession."
On the perils of performing work with any political ramifications – a serious concern acknowledged by 79 per cent of survey respondents (for example in Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines respectively):
"We don’t do political stuff, because we don’t think the politicians are ready for it. We don’t touch it. I’m interested in politics, but I don’t think the environment here is ready for real PR in that area... There is no grass roots power as such, and until you get to that stage a lot of PR (which assumes open competition for popular opinion) will not be meaningful."
"A lot of time we have to get involved – for example when there is sponsorship of events from government. It’s not pleasant dealing with government officers. They’re usually looking for something, either power or monetary reward. I just try to minimise all government involvements."
And most chillingly of all: "I know of a number of political PR operatives who have been very effective – but one day have just disappeared."
(So much for the free and open "contest of opinions" often said to underpin PR practice.)
What to make of it all?
All in all, the insights and comments provided by practitioners across the region indicate that there is much that remains universal about the practice of public relations – as one practitioner in Thailand put it, "a good idea is a good idea, anywhere" – but equally clearly it indicates also that some distinctive local environmental factors warrant closer and more serious, detailed attention than they have tended to receive in most journals and conferences.
From such scrutiny, a better synthesis between theory and real-world practice, in all its variety and complexity around the world, may yet emerge.
If existing professional bodies are to demonstrate their ongoing relevance in rapidly transforming global environments; if international consultants and others are to give truly wise counsel to their transnational clients/employers; and – last but not least – if academics are to continue playing a useful role providing a solid foundation for graduates to enter professional practice, all must move more decisively to close some 21st century knowledge gaps and reconcile theories (and some western conventional wisdoms) with a number of more complicated global realities.
Revealing the world as it looks through the eyes of practitioners working in more diverse locations might be a very good start to this.
In that respect, IPRA is to be commended for the valuable contribution it is making through this current series of articles.
Thought Leader Profile
Graeme Domm is a senior manager at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. Until recently he was Director of Communications for RMIT International University Vietnam, based in Ho Chi Minh City.His background is in journalism, government and public relations consultancy. Further information on the above research (and full references for the work of other authors mentioned here) is available from the author: [email protected]