We’ve all heard the mantra that organizational messaging must be consistent across all stakeholders — that it solidifies branding, builds trust with customers and employees, communicates the value of products and services and so on.
Got it. Understood.
Now throw globalization into the mix. Whether you embrace or detest it, globalization has increased complexity for public relations practitioners as more businesses find expansion across borders easier to do as well as essential for their continued growth.
For PR professionals responsible for message development, one of the first conundrums of multi-national expansion is determining whether corporate messaging should be consistent across all audiences or be localized to specific regions.
One way to make a decision is to look at the problem via the four Cs: cost, complexity, control and credibility.
Cost and Complexity
Cost and complexity go hand in hand. As activities get more complex, the cost will begin to rise. Here are a few examples:
- Customizing messages for another one, two, three or more regions or countries can quickly turn into a budget-buster, especially when you need to bring on local PR experts or agencies and conduct market-specific research. And don’t forget that someone has to manage the process and the vendors.
- Localized messaging development is useless if not integrated into a company’s broad array of communication vehicles, such as marketing collateral and sales presentations. Tracking changes and versions of updated collateral is complicated and translations are costly.
- For most international organizations, websites are at the heart of their external communications strategy. If messaging is centralized, one website for all publics is usually considered sufficient. If messaging is localized, you’re looking at an expensive and complex overhaul of website architecture and content.
- Monitoring of both traditional and social media definitely gets more convoluted as messages are localized, especially when attempting to measure quality rather than quantity of coverage.
- Media training and pre-media briefings become trickier for global spokespeople as well as for corporate PR practitioners, all who have to tailor messages for specific audiences.
- Keeping decision making and tactics execution centralized often eliminates the need to hire in-region PR personnel. Technology today has practically eliminated the need for a brick and mortar presence in many cases, a cost savings not to be ignored.
PR types generally are control freaks. Our job, after all, is ensuring we have a tight rein on both the message and its dissemination. If I were a betting person, I’d wager a year’s worth of cappuccinos that the incumbent corporate headquarters PR team would prefer to protect its authority and turf by keeping decision making centralized at corporate headquarters rather than allowing it to be diffused around the globe. (Deep in your heart, you know I’m right here because it’s good to be top dog.)
Companies earn credibility and trust as well as a positive reputation when they consistently demonstrate, through messaging as well as through other actions, that they understand and respect their customers.
What many PR professionals often forget is that creating credibility is more than verifying a new product name via the Urban Dictionary. (Thank you, Urban Dictionary, for once helping to halt forward progress on a name that, it turns out, also is slang for male genitalia in France.) It’s more than knowing not to e-blast a single Christmas greeting to all global customers, including those in Saudi Arabia and Israel. And it’s more than simply translating website content word-for-word and then touting a multi-cultural website.
In actuality, earning credibility comes from paying attention to the finer points of cross-cultural understanding.
“Blurring Boundaries”, an article published a couple of years ago in an International Association of Business Communicator’s publication, included results of a survey that asked European communications directors about differences they had with their global headquarters. The directors pointed out a number of challenges they believe were not fully appreciated by their non-European corporate headquarters team. In addition to the obvious ones about language, time zones and business customs, the survey respondents pointed out a lack of understanding of European Union directives, regulatory frameworks and country legislation; little knowledge of different media landscapes; and ignorance of the significance of past “skeletons in the local cupboard”, those events and issues (e.g., the loss of a client and why) known locally but not necessarily throughout corporate headquarters.
A policy of centralized message development often overlooks these not-so-obvious disparities that must be taken into consideration and influence how we communicate with regional audiences.
Making a Choice: Centralized or Localized?
If message development is approached from the viewpoints of cost, complexity and control, the decision to keep it centralized at corporate headquarters is easy. However, the fourth C — credibility — is the one that has the most effect on creating a positive reputation for an organization and, therefore, has enough weight on its own to tip the scale to the side of decentralized message development.
We’ve read the books, spent money on consultants and agencies and formed internal and external focus groups in our quests to develop messages that resonate with all stakeholders.
We’ve preached to our spokespeople that they must stay on message and we’ve spent countless hours weaving carefully crafted phrases and words into marketing collateral, website copy, social media postings and media briefing books. However, if an organization’s strategy is to expand beyond it headquarters region and make local commitments to its global customers, corporate message decision makers should embrace the same commitments through action as well as words.