When it comes to talking to the international media the words 'laugh and the world laughs with you' does not always ring true. While the British sense of humour can work well during certain media interviews in the UK, many foreign journalists do not find our jokes so funny.
Indeed, ensuring a company spokesperson can adapt his or her approach to accommodate cultural sensitivities relating to the way people are expected to act, look and speak in particular countries is a serious matter.
'There are some basic rules if people want to promote themselves in different markets,' explains international training and media business Bladonmore founder Richard Rivlin. 'As well as ensuring they do not offend anyone, one of the most important jobs is to make sure they watch the morning news and get the headlines from the national newspapers translated before they meet the media. They need to understand the local context in which they will be answering questions.'
While companies must be aware of how the target audience in a specific country will react to a story the fundamental principles that apply when talking to any UK journalist are still relevant when speaking to the international media.
A spokesperson must prepare well and try to take control of an interview, but he or she may need to fine-tune what they do. This may mean learning how to operate alongside a translator if an interview is being conducted by a non-English-speaking journalist.
Porter Novelli works closely with its sister companies across Europe to train executives from around the world on how to talk to international journalists. Many of its clients are US spokespeople who need to understand how the media work in different European countries. Or, they are Middle Eastern businessmen trying to raise the profile of their companies in the Western media, which they appreciate is more challenging than the relatively tame media they are used to at home.
'The British PR and media professions are held in high regard globally and if someone has been trained to handle our media he or she can probably cope with anything,' says PN head of corporate practice Jonathan Hemus.
Most PROs will organise specific training for any member of staff likely to be talking to overseas journalists. It is also becoming increasingly common for many businesses to ban people from talking to the press until they have received some formal coaching.
Of course, deciding who should be the public face of a company or brand when talking to foreign journalists is not simply about who has been media trained. There are other factors to consider too, such as personality or accent.
Former Ford head of corporate comms Michael Bland runs his own training and presentation-skills firm. He says journalists around the world are gradually adopting a more aggressive approach to interviewing, synonymous with reporters in Britain, which means choosing the right spokesperson has become even more important.
Bland says: 'As a rough rule we find that German journalists want to know how something works, the French ask what it can do, the Italians talk about its design and the style and the British want to know what is wrong with it and what it cannot do. Companies must also think about other things, from the colours used in press conferences to clothes. Are they being respectful to the local audience or will they offend them in some way without realising it?'
Shout Communications director Keren Haynes, who trains British and US executives, tells clients to treat an international press interview as another foreign business meeting and follow the same etiquette. This means, for example, being more formal in Asia than in the US.
'It is also important to remember that an international audience's knowledge changes depending on the channel you are using,' she says. 'When someone is talking about business issues on local radio we tell them to assume listeners know little about the subject, while viewers for a Europe-wide broadcaster like CNBC will know if someone is not giving them the information they expect.'
GCI UK produces what is effectively a beginner's guide to how media culture differs around the world. It mentions, for example, how the aggressive questioning techniques employed by journalists in Denmark can come as a surprise, and how reporters in Southern Europe may expect to receive a sample of new products, while the distribution of such freebies is frowned upon in Northern Europe.
Other stages of the GCI's international media-training programme include a face-to-face briefing using role play and ensuring the interview is managed effectively so the journalist receives the information required.
'When dealing with international media it is also crucial that you can measure the success of an interview,' says chief executive Adrian Wheeler. 'We will help a client determine whether its spokesman got the key messages across, if the journalist understood them and if the main points appeared in any subsequent overseas coverage.'
The attitude among journalists to media training tends to be mixed. Some are sceptical and accuse trainers and PROs of trying to turn spokespeople into politicians by teaching them how to avoid answering difficult questions.
In reality, good media training, especially when targeting the international media, can help everyone. It should mean people speak clearly and in soundbites journalists can use.
CNBC Europe news editor Harry Fuller says most of the corporate executives who appear on the business channel have had some form of media training.
'Many executives from Eastern Europe have not had any training and can feel really uncomfortable if they have not appeared on live TV before,' says Fuller.
'Good media training should also ensure interviewees provide strong content as well as give a good performance. Our viewers demand good answers because they are making investment decisions based on what they hear,' he adds.
The different political, social and cultural issues that affect people's lives around the world cannot be ignored when a company is trying to get its message over to a global audience. The embarrassment and the negative coverage that can be generated if interviewees get it wrong is certainly no laughing matter.
THE IMPORTANCE OF LOCAL KNOWLEDGE
- In Muslim countries journalists attending press conferences will expect their dietary requirements to be taken into account and prayer breaks to be scheduled if an event lasts a few hours.
- The interviewing techniques of journalists can vary enormously. In the Middle East reporters tend to be more deferential than those in the West. The media in the US tend to have a more positive attitude to large corporations compared to reporters in the Indian sub-continent who can be more aggressive towards big business. In China and other countries where the media are state-owned, expect the questioning to be influenced by politics.
- When being interviewed in the Far East about a new product do not be overly positive. Many cultures in this part of the world find such enthusiasm unsavoury.
- When conducting telephone interviews with German journalists address them as Herr or Frau rather than using their first names.
- It is polite to talk slowly when conducting phone interviews with a journalist if English is not their first language.