For public relations practitioners operating across borders the fundamental question is whether to stick to the procedures tested in the home country, adopt formulae that are assumed to represent the international standard or act in a way that is perceived as typical of the target country, so called glocalisation.
Maynard defines glocalisation as “the process whereby global corporations tailor products and marketing to particular local circumstances to meet variations in consumer demand”. The glocal approach is frequently used in international contexts, yet it has not primarily been conceived as a public relations approach. Our profession has a lot to do with human interactions, positive feelings, and trustworthy collaborations and little with product and service promotion – although sometimes we actually do these activities too.
Other scholars have proposed a different approach to international public relations, an approach based on cultural understanding. In practice, these scholars claim that the important aspects to be considered in communicating with publics internationally are: their country profiles, including their political structure, economic structure, mass media, infrastructure, legal structure and social structure; and their cultural profiles.
In fact, an organisation working in an international context and applying a cultural approach to its publics needs first to consider:
- how many countries/cultures are involved directly and indirectly;
- what types of publics there are in each country;
- the level of involvement of each public in each country; and
- the historical, economic, political and cultural patterns of each country.
This approach surely provides some interesting indications that could actually be put in place, but it suffers from two problems: it takes time and costs money to research and implement a strategy that includes all these parameters and it requires many human resources to continuously monitor changes on public behaviours. Besides, it does not solve the problem of breaking the initial barrier that many of us may experience when working abroad, between local publics and a foreigner PR practitioner.
I have lived in several different countries and had the opportunity to meet different people and experts. Each time I was surprised how, beside common professional practices, we differentiate each others. Our profession, as my friend and internationally renowned PR expert Toni Muzi Falconi once said to me, is a profession of details. Even a wrongly spelt name on the platform can ruin the organisation of a conference. Yet, how can we be sufficiently detail-oriented when we are working in international contexts?
The problems are not only how to spell the name of our guests correctly, to translate our messages accurately and to use appropriate business etiquettes.
Our problem is to know how we can create and maintain mutual and beneficial relationships with people from different countries, how we can integrate our corporate values and mission with the cultural norms of our publics and how we can be effective in different countries simultaneously.
I started to think about these questions some years ago, when I first to moved from my native country, Italy, to Canada and then to Belgium, Finland and latterly to Switzerland.
I realised that besides my PR competencies and knowledge of the markets something else was necessary. This was a deep understanding of the cultural interpretations that each of us give to oral and written words and personal behaviours. This is even truer with non-Western countries.
I still remember the disappointment of one of my Finnish friends, who was visiting me in Switzerland and wanted to see the most beautiful mountains in the world, as they were described in one of the tourist brochures. My friend’s disappointment was not caused by the Swiss mountains per se (they are beautiful) but was created by the high expectations that this brochure produced in his mind.
Besides the funny jokes that we made on the brochure’s large use of superlatives and fancy words, it was clear that the connotative meaning of those words for a Finnish person was slightly different from that meant by the Swiss copywriter.
Cultural differences remain and the sensitivity to the use of language, the use of visuals, and cultural taboos are all a critical aspect of the public relations effort. How special events happen or can happen is often tied closely to the cultures involved.
Cultures also affect professional ethics. Ethics is a variable which changes from society to society. Being sensitive to what the ethics are in a country may make a critical difference in the success of the public relations effort.
According to a recent survey on global media relations practices by Katerina Tsetsura, a large majority of journalists and public relations practitioners around the world considered it acceptable for their national media to accept payments from news sources in return for coverage.
From these findings we could conclude that in certain countries we could be more successful by being unethical. Without going so far, a great interest in the last few years has been given to informal relationship models. It appears that in certain countries, for example in South-East Asia, informal relations between journalists and PR practitioners that encompass the professional are extremely important in order to be able to forward company’s information through the media.
So we come back to my initial question. How do we know what is acceptable to say and do in certain international contexts? How can we evaluate our PR outcomes in international settings, especially when the parameters to be compared are as different as the countries in question?
The answers are still open to discussion as a global approach to public relations that works in all international contexts has not yet been achieved. However, more and more scholars and practitioners have realised the importance of cultural understanding for public relations. We can conclude that it is not possible to conceive international public relations without integrating elements of intercultural communication and cultural understanding.
So nowadays being a good international PR practitioner also means being a good cross-cultural communicator.
We do not need to work for a multinational company to realise the importance of intercultural communication, we just need to look outside the window and see who is passing in the street. The free movement of people in different countries has created more and more multi-ethnic cities with citizens, customers and business partners from different cultural backgrounds.
The challenges for international public relations are many and will also multiply as a consequence of globalisation and the use of new technologies. One thing is clear: if we do not integrate more skills in intercultural communication and we do not start to seek diversity in our practical experiences, then a profession that needs heart and human understanding alongside rational planning will be in trouble.
Group photo: Richard Bailey
Landscape photo: D-32 via Flickr