Spaghetti complexity theory of international PR


This is an article by Valentina Nobili.
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I’ve been managing the European-wide PR campaign for one of the markets of a multinational company for two years now and I’ve come to the conclusion that international business to business (or trade) PR is anything but easy.

What is an international PR campaign anyway and what is it used for? I could look up hundreds of definitions in books and on Google, but I’ll let you do that. I’ll tell you what I think it is.

Defining international PR

When we talk about media relations, I would define an international PR campaign as one single campaign that you roll out across multiple countries in which your organisation has operations. In other words, you write a press release (or a series of them), translate it and send it to your target trade media in the various countries.

I wish it was that simple. In my experience, it’s more like a bowl of spaghetti: an intricate series of items that you roll around your project management fork in order to feed your company’s hunger for media coverage and recognition among its key stakeholders.

Markets are not easy to deal with, and this is something that hit me hard when I left university. Because, during your PR course, the scenarios that you face are often a bit unrealistic – or at least, a few ‘details’ will have been omitted. It’s a bit like when people tell you that one day you’ll meet the man (or woman) of your dreams, get married, have kids and live happily ever after. They don’t actually mention that you’ll have silly arguments about the way you squeeze the toothpaste, or the trouble that you’ll have with your parents in-law.

I think International PR is a bit like that. It has lots of surprises: a few are exciting and I think they are the perks of the job…but a few are annoying and sometimes seem to just be there to make your life difficult.

Planning international campaigns

So imagine yourself, during your communications planning phase, trying to decide what you’re going to do in terms of PR and media relations.  The perfect scenario would be to identify the needs and objectives of the business: are we launching a new product? Do we need to increase the sales of an existing product? Do we need to position the company as an expert in a certain field? Or do we want to encourage a two-way dialogue with the customers?

This is the first obstacle. Because markets, more often than not, are very different from each other – too different for a company to even have the same objectives in two different countries. So you can now imagine what it’s like when you’re dealing with nine of them.

I’ll describe to you what could be a real-life scenario, based on the company that I work for which produces, amongst other things, welding gases. (For those who might not be very familiar with this subject, in very simple terms welding is the art of joining two pieces of metal by melting their adjacent parts together with a flame by using a welding machine and a welding gas.)

The company has a number of offerings – for argument’s sake, let’s call them welding gases A, B and C – and nine countries where it sells them in Europe.  Welding gas A is the market standard: all the competitors offer exactly the same product. Welding gas B is more sophisticated than welding gas A and the competition offers similar products.  Welding gas C, on the other hand, is the star of the range and the competition has no equivalent product.

If I didn’t know anything about the welding gases market, I would say that welding gas C should be the focus of my PR campaign in order to give it the push it needs to increase its market penetration.

But the scenario is not quite as straightforward. Sales in France are going very well and, if the demand of welding gas C increased, we wouldn’t be able to meet it, due to limits on our production capabilities.  In the UK and Germany, welding gas C was launched a few years ago, and the market is aware of the product (although it could do with a further push) so there is nothing new to tell.  In Poland full benefit hasn’t been reaped from welding gas B, so welding gas C can’t be launched just yet. And in the Benelux region the sales for gas Z, which is a niche (but high-return) product, are really not picking up, so the focus should be on that instead.

This fictitious scenario should give you a flavour of what markets are like. More often than not, you simply can’t use the same campaign across all countries. In this particular instance, you could try to find some news (or create it!) about welding gas C for the UK and Germany where market conditions are similar and then focus on other products/issues in other countries, with a completely separate campaign.  But again, it’s not as straightforward as it seems.

What’s the news?

Once you’ve identified the news that you want to sell into your target media in the UK and Germany, you (the English-speaking PR professional) draft the press release in English. You get all the necessary internal approvals: all the technical details of welding gas C need to be checked and verified by your welding expert; all trademarks checked by the legal department; and the press release and relevant photos approved by the safety department; then it all has to be approved by the UK marketing manager. Then you send your approved press release to your German PR agency, which will translate it for you and ensure that it is suitable for distribution to the local press.

But you can’t expect your agency to know that in Germany the welding safety regulations are different from the ones in the UK, so some of the data in your press release needs to be changed. You therefore go through another round of approvals in order to adapt the press release that you wrote for the UK to the German market.

This process can take two weeks at the best of times, but could take up to a month (depending on how quickly you get the necessary internal approvals). And if you have to carry out this process for nine countries at the time…well, I’ll let you imagine the headaches and the frustration.

But time is not the only issue. If you want to produce good-quality campaigns, you need the knowledge and experience of a local PR agency.  And of course their help doesn’t come for free.  So how much can you compromise on the quality of the output in order to meet budgetary constraints?

The option of rolling out the same campaign across a number of countries is often the cheapest and quickest way to achieve your media relations objectives.  But as we saw earlier, this doesn’t always work: differences in the marketplaces, language issues and internal bureaucracy hold-ups are sometimes just not worth the effort.

So in the past two years, my main objective has been to streamline the PR process and make it as straight-forward and cost effective as possible.

The first year was not very good. I tried to run five separate campaigns simultaneously as PR activities were not deemed necessary by the business in the other four countries at that time. I quickly learnt that this was not possible – especially when PR was supposed to be only a fraction of my job (and of the overall marketing communications campaigns I was running) and other projects were taking up most of my time in the office.

Feeling the stress levels rise and with only a couple of cuttings landing on my desk each month (I look back at that time as the cuttings’ famine period), I decided that this approach was not going to work for me and my dear welding gases.

How to manage campaigns

So I learnt to recycle. To build a campaign, reap its benefits and then, if the timing is right for the project, localise it for use in another country and reap the benefits there. Unless you have a massive budget to play with and a team of people who are dedicated to PR, centralisation is the only feasible solution despite its many shortcomings. This is how I now manage my campaigns, whenever possible – and I am seeing the results of my hard work: international PR doesn’t necessarily have to be as difficult as I was making it.

Of course, you can’t always centralise, because of the differences in local markets: in some cases, you just have to roll up your sleeves and start a new campaign from scratch (unless you have a campaign at hand that you used in the past in another country, which you could use as a starting point).

As we’ve seen, the international PR “spaghetti” can be difficult to manage, especially when you have little experience in the field. The first time you try, you simply don’t know how to pick the strands up without smothering yourself with the tomato sauce.  And if challenges are amongst your life’s biggest pleasures, you’ll definitely enjoy this one.  But even if you don’t, as time goes by and you start getting the hang of it, I can assure that you will come to love the flavour of the cuttings that will be pouring through your post box.

Photos by Victoria Louise Crampton

Comments

  1. Very helpful article and illustrates link between PR and marketing as well as the importance of individual country regulations, all linked to budgetary constraints. highlights the conundrum of centralising a campaign. I ask if a campaign can really be tailored to a country when it is driven from a central office? Or is it just another form of imperialism?. I worked in Int. PR for many years (WeberShandwick, London) and am now teaching it to postgraduates at AUT University, Auckland NZ and reflecting on all these topics.

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  1. […] Valentina Nobili has tried managing pan-European campaigns, and thinks the mess and complexity can resemble a bowl of spaghetti. Nathaniel Southworth-Barlow experienced public relations in Transylvania on a summer placement. […]

  2. […] Nobili, V 2008, ‘Spaghetti complexity theory of international PR’, Behind the Spin, viewed 29 October 2015, http://www.behindthespin.com/features/spaghetti-complexity-theory-of-international-pr. […]

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