Corporate travel budgets are up as companies are increasingly taking part in events held overseas. David Ward outlines what should and should not be done by participantsIn a global economy, international conferences have become a great way for US companies to not only make the right overseas business connections, but also leverage the local and regional media to drive brand awareness in new markets.
But for many US executives - as well as their PR representatives - attending an overseas conference can feel a bit like they are stepping into a scene from Lost in Translation. From the tone of a PowerPoint presentation to the exchange of business cards to the color of the ink used in an invitation, every element takes on a whole new meaning at an international event.
Bill Imada, president and CEO of Imada Wong Communications Group, notes that even a company's choice of promotional tchotchkes can have certain unintended consequences. "I actually had a car company passing out green hats in China as a premium, not knowing that when Chinese men wear them it means their wife is cheating at home," he says.
It's these cultural quirks that end up putting far more pressure on both internal corporate communications departments and outside PR firms to make sure that messages delivered at an overseas conference are just as clear and effective as they are at home. "It takes more work to correctly present who you and your company are when you're overseas," explains Joyce Millet, president of San Francisco-based Culture Savvy, which offers cross-cultural training and consulting for businesses.
Once you've settled on attending an event, the next major step is to find a good translator who knows the language and the country's cultural idiosyncrasies. "English is the official language of the global business world," says Lorain Wong, Hong Kong-based marketing and communications VP at Asia Netcom. "But if you want to get your message across clearly and concisely, it's not only a courtesy, but also very practical to get a professional translator for a press releases and other material."
"The key is to get it done professionally," adds Stephen Graham, principal at International Media Consultants. He recommends contacting groups such as the International Association of Conference Interpreters (www.aiic.net) or the UK-based Institute of Linguists. "A bad translation can hurt you more than if you didn't do it at all," he notes.
Culture Savvy's Millet says it may also be worthwhile to hire a PR firm for the short term in the city where the conference is being held. "You want somebody with local knowledge, but also with some clout to get things done in that market," she says.
However, Millet also notes that somebody - whether it's a PR firm, a corporate communications department, or a company's top management - should make sure that any executives attending an overseas conference are well-briefed on local customs before they leave.
"They should be able to get off the plane and understand what they face," says Millet, adding that one of the most common mistakes US executives make overseas is becoming too familiar, too fast. "The attitude of 'Just call me Bob' is ridiculous. No one should use anyone's first name until they've been asked to do so. That goes for Europe as well as the Far East."
Armando Azarloza, EVP with Weber Shandwick's Los Angeles office and head of the firm's Hispanic marketing practice, recommends finding out how business in the country is conducted outside the conference as well. "The idea of a 7:30am or 8am breakfast meeting wouldn't even occur to a business person in Latin America," he says. "So understanding those cultural nuances is important."
One area where much of the world, especially large parts of Europe and Asia, may be ahead of the US is in communications technology. But Ame Wadler, chairwoman of Burson-Marsteller's global healthcare practice, says that doesn't mean you can travel to an international event and be certain your cell phone, laptop, and projector will work smoothly.
"You must absolutely know what equipment you'll be using and make sure your materials are formatted for that equipment," she says. "It makes a difference as to how things show up in color, or whether it looks squished on the screen during a presentation. And one thing that Americans tend to forget is producing Word documents for US-sized paper won't print appropriately outside the US."
For those accustomed to the US media, dealing with the local press at an international conference can also be a challenge. "Every market works media differently," Wong says. "In Japan, for instance, it's all about courtesy. With Japanese press clubs, you have to make an appointment and hand-deliver the release, and if you put something on the wires before it's delivered to the press club, some of the old-time reporters are offended."
"The media in some countries is controlled by the government," adds Imada. "And some, like Korea, are controlled by corporations that run not only an auto company and other manufacturing, but also PR, advertising, and the media."
Of course, many executives at multinationals are well-traveled and typically have gone through their own internal training, so they may be a bit resistant to an agency telling them what to do and how to act.
But Wadler says PR pros can still play a vital role. "Where we really add value is helping them understand the PR environment in that particular market," he says, "whether it's related to advocacy organization, how medical education is done, or how the local media works."
Do hire a professional translator who is familiar not only with the language, but the culture as well
Do have someone on the ground with local connections to help you through the logistics of everything from press conferences to finding a replacement projector at the last minute
Do time your press releases for your target market - if an announcement is intended for the US media, don't hesitate to release it outside of normal conference hours
Don't assume that an experienced traveler doesn't need a pre-event briefing on the local media and PR environment
Don't go overseas without ensuring that any communications technology you will be using at the conference is proven to work in that specific country
Don't rely on English alone - having press materials, signage, and presentations in multiple languages will eliminate leaving it up to the local media to translate and interpret your messages