U.S. and them

John N. Frank looks at PR challenges facing US multinationals.

John N. Frank looks at PR challenges facing US multinationals.

Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore had no inhibitions about speaking out against the US invasion of Iraq while receiving his Oscar. But American companies doing business abroad need to be a bit more circumspect than the mercurial Moore. President Bush?s decision to pursue the war without United Nations backing has reignited images of Americans as cowboys who shoot first and ask questions later, world opinion be damned in the process. With peace demonstrations in Europe and virulent anti-Americanism in the Middle East, US-based multinationals need to walk a finely defined PR path as the war in Iraq progresses. ?Post-September 11, we may have been one of the most popular countries on Earth,? notes Bob Sommer, an EVP with The MWW Group. ?[Now] we?re probably one of the least popular countries on Earth.? The main PR challenge confronting US multinationals around the globe is the impact that antiwar sentiment might have on day-to-day business. In its most direct form, this can mean disruption due to violence or vandalism. Recent attacks on McDonald?s franchises in Paris and Barcelona were not untypical incidents, and the world media feeds off the photo ops such acts of anti-US aggression provide. More strategic efforts to interrupt business include the boycotting of US products and the launching of alternative brands (see sidebar). Security and scrutiny A different area of concern for US multinationals is coping with an uptick in media interest about the security measures companies are putting in place at overseas facilities. The potential is high for terrorist attacks in response to the invasion of Iraq, making US-owned international facilities and employees of US-owned companies potential targets. With tensions high, rumors about companies, their facilities, and workers being attacked or harassed are also likely to grow. Multinationals need to have prompt response mechanisms in place to squelch such rumors and answer security questions. Lou Capozzi, CEO of MS&L, recalls that after September 11, ?our clients were swamped by reporters who wanted to know what they were doing? in terms of employee security. While the level of calls hasn?t been as high this time around, security is still a major concern. Employee concerns are also rising, so companies need to step up their internal communications. ?Employees tend to look for their organization and leaders to have answers for everything,? says Gary Stromberg of Stromberg Communications, a Ketchum company. A second phase of employee communications should be directed at helping employees respond to anti-Americanism. ?It?s the employees on the front lines who have to deal with that sentiment every day,? says Jack Leslie, chairman of Weber Shandwick. As a result, ?internal communications is going to take on a new level of importance? as the war ? and anti-American sentiment ? continues. US multinationals are taking a two-pronged approach to the PR challenges, their PR advisors agree. First, they are continuing with long-term communications programs, emphasizing their long-term commitments to local markets. Second, they are talking up their local roots, a PR approach that helps sales in good times as well as bad. Local, local, local Emphasizing local ties means having high-ranking locals ? not Americans ? as spokespeople. It also means having facts and figures available on local employment, local contributions to the economy, and local philanthropic efforts. Thinking local also includes formulating responses to antiwar sentiments tailored to local market conditions, by country and by region. Grouping the entire non-US world as anti-American and formulating one worldwide PR plan is a prescription for failure. General Motors has for years taken a local approach to communications, notes Steve Harris, VP of communications. GM goes to market with local brands ? not the GM name ? on vehicles it sells abroad. It also takes a long-term approach to international PR, realizing it plans to operate in countries through good times and bad. ?We?ve been in some of these places since the ?20s and ?30s,? says Harris. How a company is being perceived during the war depends on how it has communicated in non-war times, he contends. ?It boils down to building a trust bank of goodwill in the countries in which we operate,? he says. Bob Kornecki, global director of Edelman?s corporate practice, agrees that building trust and a reputation for corporate integrity can help US-based multinationals through times of anti-American sentiment. ?It all comes back to living the corporate values,? he says. ?Now, more than ever, you have to show how genuine you are as a company.? Kornecki doesn?t think protest brands like Mecca-Cola are a long-term threat to US brands. ?Generally, these kinds of movements don?t catch on,? he says. Paul Harraghy, director of sales for Medialink in London, says of Mecca-Cola, ?There?s been a certain cynicism among the community it?s targeted at. It?s seen as opportunistic.? Harraghy hasn?t seen US multinationals trying to defend their American roots during the war, and he thinks that?s probably the correct approach. ?Why emphasize your American parentage at a time when that?s the last thing you want to draw attention to?? he asks. Companies that have done a good job stressing their local roots have gone beyond being American brands to becoming world brands, Harraghy and others agree. Jon Harris, VP of media development and communications with health-club chain Bally?s, says local franchisees run clubs in Asia, and so keep in close touch with local markets. Harris refers calls about overseas operations to local managers. ?The one-size-fits-all approach won?t work for brand marketing,? he says. Dealing with increased media scrutiny is a matter of following some basics of crisis communications, says MS&L?s Capozzi. Companies need to speak with one voice and develop a sense of urgency in dealing with media inquiries, he advises. That same efficiency needs to be applied to employee communications. One major issue might be employees? desire to be transferred out of potentially dangerous regions like the Middle East. Lou Hoffman, president of The Hoffman Agency, advises, ?Do what you can individually, and keep a hand on the pulse of employee feelings.? GM stepped up its employee communications about security following September 11, and has maintained a high level of activity in that area, says Harris. An employee website discusses security issues. Long-term approach Whatever happens in Iraq, American companies need to continue long-term messaging efforts. ?We?re trying to keep clients? views on the long-term perspective,? says Mike Bawden, president of Brand Central Station, an Iowa brand consulting firm (he?s also chairman of ECCO International, an international network of PR and marketing agencies). Agrees MWW?s Sommers, ?Your marketing strategy and PR strategy can?t just be driven by what?s happening in the war. We?re probably going to see ? if not a reordering ? a restructuring of economic relationships between countries and the US that we haven?t seen since World War II.? He continues, ?Be prepared for change. The status quo will be no longer.? But others disagree. Hoffman, for one, believes ?the dynamics that have been in place a long time are still in place. There will always be flare-ups that will bring attention to American companies in a not-so-favorable way. You can?t let it paralyze you.? Rather, continue emphasizing local roots and contributions, Hoffman and others agree. International consumers are willing to make distinctions between US government actions they dislike and US products, he believes. Stick to talking about who your company is and what its products offer, and don?t get caught up in political issues or side-taking. ----- The replacements Soft drinks Zamzam Cola invented in Iran to replace Pepsi after the country?s Islamic revolution in 1979. Hit the shelves in Bahrain last year in response to growing anti-US sentiment. Mecca-Cola launched in November 2002 by a French businessman of Tunisian origins as a competing product to Coke that would satisfy the needs of Arab speakers in Europe and elsewhere Quibla Cola launched in the UK in February 2003, and is aimed at the Muslim community there. 10% of profits go to Muslim charity Islamic Aid Snacks Abu Ammar and Hero both are brands of Egyptian snack chips. Abu Ammar (above) comes in a bag emblazoned with Palestinian colors and a picture of Yasser Arafat. Some of the proceeds go toward the ?Palestine cause.? Hero is bagged with picture of a boy with a stone in his hand facing an Israeli tank Toys Dara and Sara a set of boy and girl twins launched in Iran as a replacement for Barbie and Ken. They come with modest clothing and cannot be undressed

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