Face time helps global firms bridge the distance

Multinational PR firms often boast of their global network of offices, telling clients that representation in another country is just a matter of picking up the phone, or sending an e-mail.

Multinational PR firms often boast of their global network of offices, telling clients that representation in another country is just a matter of picking up the phone, or sending an e-mail.

Getting fast help on a project in Zurich, for example, is no problem: A colleague is readily available to work local connections and offer special insight on his or her market.

The reality, however, is not always so neat and tidy, agency executives concede off the record. That colleague in Zurich may not know the people in the New York office very well, or perhaps Zurich would prefer not to sacrifice billable hours on a project for which it can't declare revenue.

Assuming, though, that the networks do work in the spirit of cooperation and harmony, what tools or techniques do they use to keep communication lines open?

Rob Mathias, MD of Ogilvy PR in Washington, says his firm is one of many that rely on an intranet - "O Village," as Ogilvy's is called - that lets users quickly search by topics, such as expertise and geography, to find a starting point for research or advice.

But the most certain guarantee that an inter-office contact will come through, Mathias says, is face-to-face interaction. Ogilvy senior leaders typically gather three or four times a year at global management meetings where they not only cover business, but also have "a fair amount of fun."

Ronald Mincheff, GM of Sao Paulo-based Edelman Brazil, agrees that in-person interaction is a great asset. He says that while technological advances in the 13 years he's worked in the country make staying in touch with colleagues in other offices easier and more immediate, he always makes a point when he travels of stopping by the local Edelman branch.

"Wherever I am, I drop by," Mincheff says, so the next time he finds himself in need of international assistance, colleagues at other offices are more likely to feel a sense of obligation to help. "Everybody is busy [and] pressed for time, so you have to create this accountability," he explains. "Therefore, I do the walk-by."

Some PR firms are taking inter-office networking to extremes. Young & Associates (Y&A), for instance, bills itself as entirely "virtual." Each member of its seven-person staff works from home, in Colorado, Ohio, North Carolina, Washington, and elsewhere around the country. They keep in touch via weekly staff calls, and meet in-person once a quarter. Since no two people at the firm are geographically close, the bulk of the agency's work has to be done by e-mail, IM, or phone.

To help maintain personal connections among staff, Meggan Manson, Y&A's Rockville, MD-based VP, says the first 15 to 20 minutes of every weekly teleconference is set aside for water-cooler-type chat.

Ogilvy's Mathias concurs that conversations such as those are not to be overlooked. Because of the global nature of many businesses, he says, clients definitely care about how functional an agency's network really is.

"That's one of the main questions you hear from clients," he notes, "'How often do you hear from other offices? When was the last time you talked to someone in China?' And I can say, 'Two days ago. We talked about his kids.'"

Key points:

Many clients are genuinely concerned with the effectiveness of a firm's global network

Intranets give execs at global PR firms quick access to market experts and contract details

E-mail and calls are fine, but personal contact helps ensure cooperation

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