International Offices: Speaking a universal language

As a growing number of clients require more dots on the map, agencies must work hard to create a harmonious, fluid culture across the world.

As a growing number of clients require more dots on the map, agencies must work hard to create a harmonious, fluid culture across the world.

Agencies that practice global PR are finding that dealings with international clients may be the easiest parts of their endeavors.

For as more firms situate offices in foreign countries to better serve clients, varying customs, speech patterns, time zones, and other differences can lead to inefficiencies - and sometimes hostilities - among team members unfamiliar or uncomfortable with dealing with their foreign counterparts.

To enhance productivity and morale, it is essential that firms have communication methodologies that enable geographically diverse colleagues to easily share important client and company data, and become acquainted with one another in social and business environments.

"The biggest challenge is making sure everyone understands what is going on everywhere else in the company," says Vanessa Colomar, director of knowledge sharing/insights and ideas group for Burson-Marsteller, which has 92 worldwide offices. "Keeping information flowing is the best practice."

And the leveraging of intranet technologies - which typically are affordable to firms of all sizes - is perhaps the most effective way for agencies to foster communication between international locations. Intranets provide online portals that staffers can access to obtain client files, progress reports, and other data related to specific PR initiatives.

Team members are able to revise drafts of press releases, strategic client documents, business pitches, and other materials, and attach notes that explain why changes were made or to comment on specific passages.

Agency resources also can be made available through the intranet, including case studies of previous projects, a directory of staffers with their specific areas of expertise, and instructions on how to develop press releases.

"You would not conduct a global program without using these technologies," says Andy Roach, CIO for Ketchum, which gives staffers in 40 countries access to its MyKGN intranet system. "They provide an effective way to get around time-zone issues because account teams can work on documents at their convenience and always know they are accessing the latest version of a client file."

Other web-based systems enable clients to access agency portals to get project information. Most clients, however, typically are just concerned with results and have little say in how their PR firms interact internally.

While online systems can keep all global staffers within the data loop, they often are no substitute for the trust and fellowship that develops when team members spend time with one another. Lewis PR, with 14 offices in the US, Europe, and Asia, regularly flies its international staffers to a central location where teams can participate in workshops, socialize, and subsequently discover each other's personalities and preferences.

"It's much easier to understand people and learn what their interests are if you know them as a friend, rather than just a co-worker or a name at the end of an e-mail," says Morgan McLintic, Lewis VP. "Some people are very good at writing, and others prefer coming up with ideas or talking to the media. By getting to know the strengths and weaknesses of each team member, you can compensate for, or leverage, their abilities."

Having staffers spend time in their agencies' different foreign offices also is an effective way for individuals to learn local customs while enhancing their firms' international flavor. Lewis often will send employees to new regions to replace team members who are on vacation.

"You don't develop strong relationships by e-mail or the telephone because the messages can be interpreted in so many different ways," says Terresa Christenson, GM, Western Region, and managing director, Asia Pacific, for Brodeur Worldwide. "Being able to place a face to a name makes people more sympathetic and empathetic, and happier to work together."

Regular meetings between project leaders and international account teams, meanwhile, help to ensure that all members stay attuned to project strategies. In-person visits and conference calls should occur at least monthly, but more frequent communication is key during the first three months of an initiative so that plans can be fine-tuned if needed, she notes.

Close contact with international offices also enables staffers to learn the characteristics of each country, which could help prevent miscommunication.

While employees of American-owned firms in foreign locations often speak English, people in some countries, such as the Netherlands and Israel, sometimes are very blunt in their comments and mannerisms. US-based personnel might mistake that directness for rudeness, says Michael Burns, president of Michael A. Burns & Associates, a 23-person agency in Dallas that operates a satellite office in the Netherlands.

"Every culture is different, and there are codes that you cannot violate without offending your partner," he notes. "The key is to get acquainted with people who can localize you to the ways of the country."

PR firms of all sizes typically face the same issues when collaborating with international offices and usually can resolve most problems by following similar methodologies. Being flexible in their scheduling in order to handle early morning or late evening conference calls, for instance, will enable most US account teams to overcome time differences and communicate efficiently with their European and Asian counterparts.

KCSA Worldwide, a New York-based firm with an office in Tel Aviv, always has an employee in its US location by 7am to take calls from Israel, says Jeff Corbin0, managing partner. Corbin also visits his foreign office at least once a quarter to keep the partnership solid. "It is easy for people who work in faraway offices to think mostly about themselves and make less of a team effort," he says. "But by understanding each other, we can create a trust factor, which leads to a good relationship."

Technique tips

Do arrange for in-person meetings between team members who work in foreign locations

Do use the company intranet to share client and company information among global offices

Do have the project leader regularly visit or communicate with team members who are situated in different regions

Don't automatically assume that blunt comments from foreign colleagues are meant as insults

Don't expect to establish close working relationships with overseas team members by communicating via e-mail or telephone

Don't be rigid in setting times in which to conduct phone meetings with international personnel

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