Can a global comms approach ever succeed?
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report

Can a global comms approach ever succeed?

Arun Sudhaman

The rise of the “global communicator” is probably a trend that has not been examined in enough detail. This much was brought home to me at our ThinkTank Live conference this week in Brussels, where one comms head after another - including DHL’s Christof Ehrhart, Microsoft’s Heather Knox, Electrolux’s Mattias Radstrom and Van Marcke’s Philippe Borremans - discussed the trials and tribulations of heading multi-market comms functions that span a bewildering variety of cultures, preferences and people. Some new research from the Corporate Executive Board (CEB) is ideally timed. The company has asked in-house comms people why managing global communications is so hard, and the answers it finds are illuminating. As companies look for growth in emerging markets, notes the CEB, “the role of communications teams is becoming increasingly complex.” This is because “communicators struggle to balance global consistency (appearing as ‘one company’) with local relevance.” “This job is made tougher with technology and social media facilitating faster and easier flow of information and opinions while local values and approaches inhibit a one-size-fits-all approach.” The CEB asked respondents to name the biggest challenges they face in overseeing global communications. The top three are: message consistency, process governance, and collaboration among communicators. The findings, says CEB director Dorian Cundick, reflect the difficulties of finding the right balance in the global vs local debate. “A number of years ago, everything was run with very strong central control,” says Cundick. “Then they found that wasn’t really working. Then everything localised, and it became the Wild West. The big shift we are seeing now is trying to find the right balance.” The solution, she adds, is for companies to figure out an approach that combines central process governance with the empowerment of local teams. Unsurprisingly, that is probably harder than it sounds. Cundick advises companies to think in terms of crisis footing, and put clear protocols in place. At the same time, local teams must be afforded a high degree of flexibility. It is not difficult to understand why many global communicators might appreciate the latter element. “Communicators feel very exposed on the cultural awareness area,” admits Cundick. “We can’t know everything - there has been a burden that we have to know everything. The smarter way is to have a good approach to have others teach us or others do it, by empowering local people to do that.” A real-life example of this approach comes from Microsoft. Knox’s ThinkTank Live presentation described how the company has adopted a ‘global storytelling agenda’ that sets guidelines but allows local units to customise content according to the cultural norms at play. It is not a perfect solution, but it is one that accepts that - no matter how small this world becomes - there is sometimes no accounting for local tastes.
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