A New Model for Global Communications
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A New Model for Global Communications

The question of whether the globalization of PR is a myth or reality is very easily answered: it is most definitely a reality. The key question in my mind is what kind of reality is it? And two further questions: what does it mean for us?

Paul Holmes

By Harris Diamond, CEO Weber Shandwick

The question of whether the globalization of PR is a myth or reality is very easily answered: it is most definitely a reality. The key question in my mind is what kind of reality is it? And two further questions: what does it mean for us? And where is it headed?

In reflecting upon the globalization of PR, I am reminded of the story of the three tailors who all operated on the same little street in Hong Kong. They were fiercely competitive. One day, the first tailor took a major initiative by placing a bold banner on the front of his shop: “By far the best tailor in Hong Kong!” Undeterred, the second tailor quickly produced an even bigger banner which said: “By far the best tailor in the world.” The third tailor thought about it for a while and then put a quite modest banner: It said: “By far the best tailor in this street.”

I leave it to you to work out which tailor did best.

As this story suggests, any concept of globalization that attempts to airbrush out the importance of local, national, or regional dynamics is not going to take us very far. Nor is it enough any more to rely on the old watchwords: “Think Global; Act Local”. Perhaps closer to the mark is an old line by Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives Tip O’Neill who once said: “All politics is local.” The story of the tailors reminds us that, in some important senses, all PR is local too.

In considering the reality of global PR, we should remember that it is complex, not simple. Global and local always co-exist, have always been intertwined and always interconnected. History shows that the rise of one does not necessarily lead to the demise of the other. Rather the story of globalization is a complex and multi-layered one—and one that we would forget at our peril.

If the 19th and the first half of the 20th century was the story—sometimes tragic—of the domination of the national state, the last 50 years has seen the development of a new key global player: the multinational organization or as some experts prefer to say more accurately and neutrally: the transnational organization.

Transnationals are different. They may be domiciled within a particular country; they may even carry strong cultural associations from that home country. Coca Cola for instance has long been regarded as American as apple pie. The historic brand essence of a Mercedes or Peugeot was quintessentially German or French. But increasingly, the national country of origin is becoming less central to the DNA of these organizations.

They act internationally; they have operations all around the world, they think internationally; their intellectual property may sit in 20 different countries; and their culture becomes, global not national or local.

Of course, talk about transnationals and people usually think that it leads to an assumption that we are talking about the big multinational businesses: Coca Cola, Microsoft, IBM, Nokia, Exxon Mobil, Sony.

But one of the key points about understanding the globalization of PR is that when we are talking about the new dominance of transnationals, we aren’t just referring to businesses, but to many other types of global players.
Transnationals may be political such as the European Commission, UNICEF or the World Health Organization; they may be NGOs such as Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth; they may be economic such as the IMF and World Bank; and they may be cultural such as CNN, BBC World and Al Jazeera.

What all these disparate organization and movements share is their willingness and ability to think and to
act primarily on a global or regional basis, rather than on a national basis. And where they don’t yet have that capability, they certainly have the aspiration.

So the first step in understanding the reality of the globalization of PR is that some of the key players now are no longer capable of being understood within the confines of traditional national state boundaries. It’s not just that they act internationally; they act supra-nationally. That is to say that their psychology, their thinking and even their cultures are becoming truly global. If we are to understand these organizations, and partner with them, we need to get that basic fact.

The term globalization most simply refers to the growing interdependence and interconnectedness of the world: whether political, military, economic, or technological. Even people who disagree about the impact of globalization can normally agree on this. Whether they view globalization as a powerful liberating force for economic prosperity and a model for international peace and collaboration; or whether they fear it as a catastrophic form of creeping tyranny and the nemesis of advanced capitalism, supporters and opponents agree that the concept rests on the fact of our interconnectedness and interdependence.

That’s true whether the issue is about trade barriers, pornography on the internet, climate change or the relentless advance of bird flu. Like it or lump it, we have never understood so keenly as now that we are all on the same planet.

Anyone who still doubts it should consult the annual AT Kearney/Foreign Policy Globalization Index. The index looks behind the headlines of globalization by using several indicators spanning trade, finance, political engagement, information technology and personal contact to determine the rankings of 62 countries which together account for 96 per cent of the world’s gross domestic product and 85 percent of the world’s population.

Yet the noted international economist Joseph Stiglitz called 2003 “a disaster for globalization” in the aftermath of the Iraq war and the deep fissures between the US and some of its allies. But notwithstanding talks of consumer boycotts of everything from Coca Cola to French fries around the time of the Iraq war, the globalization of the world beneath the news headlines continued to grow apace.

Yet, there is a second pervasive idea which is sometimes confusingly interlinked with this interconnectedness, an idea that is far more problematic for those of us facing the challenge of the globalization of PR.

It is the idea that globalization means not just international connectedness but also international “harmonization.” This notion holds that globalization inevitably moves towards uniformity and sameness in consumer behaviors, tastes, cultures and personalities. According to this view, maybe over a period of some decades, whether we live in Malaysia or New York, Belgium or Bolivia, we will all eventually act in the same way, consume the same products, and have the same cultural reference points. Local differences, so this argument runs, will reduce over time as an inevitable result of globalization.

Understandably, this argument worries many people, especially as it appears—at first—superficially persuasive. After all, take the night skyline of many a major world city whether in the US, Europe or Asia Pacific and the familiar advertising neon signs for Kodak or Panasonic or Fosters. It does seem to indicate a world which is increasingly looking alike.

It is also true that, nearly the world over, people can be seen drinking a Coca Cola, taking their kids to McDonalds, using Microsoft Windows, or clutching a Siemens cell phone. Does that mean that people around the world are all becoming the same? Does it mean that national, regional and local differences are all slowly melting away into a harmonious and uniform global consumer market place?

Far from it.

Studies of the integration of immigrants into the United States have shown the persistence of community culture, generations after their ancestors’ initial arrival. The first loyalty of most is to the Stars and Stripes. But that coexists with a continued rich diversity of cultural community and custom.

In Europe, the EU has hardly made the French less French, the Germans less German or the British less British.

But to me the biggest evidence of all that globalization does not mean bland uniformity in marketing and PR across the world comes from our many global clients at Weber Shandwick. Because if it did, and it worked, it would make a lot of sense to do it. After all, wouldn’t it be nice and simple if one could use the same strategic and creative execution for a PR campaign in Dallas, Prague and Kuala Lumpur? Not just simple, but a good deal less expensive.

In this fantasy world, one would be able to not only to strategize centrally but to execute every single aspect of the program. Some may dream but I’m afraid that this is not the reality of the world.

Instead what we face is a multinational client whose branded products and services span the globe in anything from 20 to 80 countries, a client who needs to find ways of making that brand real, relevant and meaningful in such a way that is consistently faithful to the core attributes and essence of the brand, yet flexible enough to accommodate a cultural kaleidoscope of differing wholesale and retail trading and distribution patterns, of differing consumer tastes and behavior; and of differing business, media and political cultures.

Take the work we do for Siemens and MasterCard, representing both businesses in over 40 and 45 diverse markets. Yes: of course, we help these clients drive a central global plan centered on the core brand values. But the real effectiveness of these programs comes from the huge creativity and intellectual property that we have developed around our network.

Another example is global communications for erectile dysfunction. Public and media attitudes to the discussion of sexual dysfunction differ widely across cultures.

Finally, we have a food company which faces potential media criticism in the U.S. because of the obesity issue; in Europe because of concerns over GM foods; and in the developing world because of malnutrition. Try creating a single global message around those disparate issues. You can however create a single global plan to address them.

Don’t get me wrong: the globalization opportunity is real enough in all of these cases: even the driver.  That’s why these companies’ operations and marketing capabilities have to span the globe. But the real challenge for PR is to help the client bridge that which is global and that which is local.

These are issues we have thought about deeply; and continue to think about deeply in close partnership with our clients.

The fact is that there is no magical template for global PR, no catch-all solution. If it were as simple as that every client out there would just take it off the shelf and use it. What there is instead is a steadily growing body of wisdom and ‘learning’. And the wisdom for us comes from doing it day in day out in tens of markets around the world—and, of course, in all of us learning from our mistakes.

So while there is no single magic wand for PR, let me share what I believe are some of the key criteria for success.

First, I already said that old watchwords like “Think Global, Act Local” are no longer adequate. With a very few exceptions which occasionally prove the rule, global campaigns which are designed, executed and controlled centrally have little place in today global PR market. “Think Global, Act Local’ was of course an attempt to get beyond this by suggesting that execution, at least, needed to take place locally. But it still had the implication that a group of people at head office could work out a strategy which would resonate around 70-80 countries in the world as long as it had the ‘smoothing’ of a little local interpretation for the execution.

The fact is that today global campaigns do not come from some NASA-like Mission Control nerve centre. Instead they originate from any corner of the world. And once originated, perhaps as a theme or a creative idea, they have to find their own differing expression to be effective in different markets.

That is most obvious in campaigns in countries which are cross-language and cross-cultural. But even in English speaking countries, the unity of a campaign can be challenging.

Today, our business is more and more about the quality of our ideas: strategic ideas and creative ideas. And ideas by their nature can come from anywhere, especially if we are to avoid the charge of cultural imperialism. A model which has strategy and creative at the center and execution at the local end is no longer adequate. Free-traveling, free-thinking ideas are the new lifeblood of global PR.

We simplify people at our peril. As a consumer myself, I only have to look inside my own head to know that I have interests, allegiances and loyalties that are global, national, and local. I am also influenced by the ethnic and religious origins of my ancestors, by my family, and by people who share my intellectual interests.

Much as I would love to believe I am especially complex, I think most of you would be the same. If we can hold different notions of ‘global’ and ‘local’ in our heads and live life anyway, then it is incumbent upon global PR programs to do the same. It might not be as simple but it’s a darn sight more interesting. The child who drinks Coca Cola in India is happy to be global at one minute and to be local the next. It’s the same child.

And that’s great news for our industry.

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