Lost in translation

This is an article by Holger Sievert.
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Lost In TranslationLost in Translation is a 2003 comedy-drama film starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. Superficially, it’s a movie about culture shock. The kind of culture shock that may happen to PR professionals throughout Europe if they have to communicate their message in another European country.

Everybody who has ever tried to organise a pan-European PR campaign knows what I am talking about. Often, it is only feasible by the support of local partners who not only translate, but ‘translocate’ the original content.

European public sphere

At first sight, this seems surprising. One initially sees the EU as Europe’s most important economic and political entity. But this very European Union is moving towards realising its vision at different speeds. What is truly shocking is that there has been very little progress since the 1990s. “While the process of economic and political integration has made great strides, the development of a European public is lagging far behind”, wrote the German political observer Jürgen Gerhards as early as 1993.

About a decade later, Gerard Delanty and Chris Rumford from Britain summarised the situation as follows: “The European public sphere differs from conventional public spheres, whether national or transnational, in that it is polyvocal, articulated in different languages and through different cultural models and repertoires of justifications, and occurs in very different institutional contexts.”

This lack of a European public creates new challenges every day for the field of public relations, in both theory and practice.

On a practical level, this mainly involves the arena of political communication, but businesses also need to adjust to a variety of European sub-publics, not only in their public relations, but at the basic level of product-related communications. “Each country of Europe has developed a subtly different kind of media,” was the view of a handbook of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR).

“In fact, the idea of a ‘European media landscape’ is in itself a misnomer: nothing much links the sensationalism of Albania to a British broadsheet or a long French analytical feature.” The Slovenian writer Dejan Vercic has addressed the issue of “Europe as a communication challenge” from the perspective of PR experts in several publications. For communication directors, it is essential to have some fundamental knowledge of both the differences and the shared features that exist in the media or, more concretely, in the social system of journalism in the various EU member states.

Media perspective

Due to restrictions on the length of this feature, let’s limit our view on the media as one of the main target group of PR. Still, the most comprehensive overview of the differences and commonalities within journalism in European countries is an already ten year old anthology by David Weaver called “The Global Journalist”, which brought together studies from 21 countries and territories. Weaver’s own concluding chapter in particular made it possible to compare and contrast journalism in European countries. It is striking that there is a relatively high level of congruence between the eight countries selected by the author in terms of journalists’ basic demographic characteristics, but only a limited amount of agreement with respect to their role.

The average age of journalists in all of the countries for which data were available is between 30 and 40, and the majority are male, although in one case the gender difference is only slight. The only sizeable demographic differences relate to their academic training. The proportion of journalists who have completed university studies ranges from a surprising low of 26 percent in Austria to 84 percent in Spain. Journalists’ professional self-conception and perceived autonomy are even more interesting.

There is agreement that journalists should report quickly on events. But while half of German and English journalists feel that they should ‘provide entertainment’, only eight per cent of French journalists agreed. Only 40 per cent of British journalists regard it as their professional role to report precisely, as opposed to three-quarters of the French and Germans. These few examples alone make it clear that the Europeanisation of the functional context of media actors is high only for demographic characteristics, but no more than medium for all other features.

Despite all differences it is feasible to group these differences in the form of different models. In their book entitled “Comparing Media Systems”, published four years ago, American Daniel C. Hallin and Italian Paolo Mancini developed three models of media and politics. They examined the influences of the market, the political parties and the state on the media, along with newspaper and television use and the professionalisation of journalism in 18 Western countries.

Within those countries assigned by the researchers to a specific media-system model, the respective national professional culture is also similar. Analogously, these journalistic cultures differ substantially from countries classified as belonging to a different media-system model. Despite the fact that some of these countries have long been associated with one another within the political context of the European Union, the country-specific journalism culture remains evident.

For countries like France, Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal, the authors developed a polarised, pluralistic model. In these controlled political contexts, newspaper circulation figures are low and the media are closely linked to a very polarised political setting; journalism is opinion-oriented, less professionalised and easy to instrumentalise: the state actively intervenes in the media and subsidises the press.

The liberal model is followed in Europe by Great Britain and Ireland and internationally by the United States and Canada. Here the market plays an important role, circulation figures are fairly high, and there has long been a commercial, relatively neutral mass press. Journalism is strongly professionalised, self-regulation is at least institutionalised, if not particularly strong, and the media distance themselves from politics and are strongly involved in investigative journalism.

The researchers classify the media systems in Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland as part of the democratic-corporate model. Newspaper circulation is high, the mass press well-developed, the party press has historically been very important, but a neutral, commercial press has come to be predominant. Journalism is very much professionalised and its self-regulation has been institutionalised in these countries.

Managing diversity

Only if the sphere of public relations is aware of specific cultural factors involved in European communication, or even better, in national communication within the European countries, will it be able to analyse appropriately and enter into a helpful dialogue with its various stakeholders with a view to strategy-oriented practice. European communication management implies managing diversity within a framework of diversity.


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