Getting ahead in a 'flatter' world

During a recent trip to Beijing, we won a task with a large healthcare company. Other firms were competing for the business, most much larger than our team.

During a recent trip to Beijing, we won a task with a large healthcare company. Other firms were competing for the business, most much larger than our team.

Yet "nimble, local, and entrepreneurial" were the attributes the client cited as reasons we won their business. This was heartening because it affirmed that serving clients globally doesn't require hundreds of offices. While we need to "be" in clients' key markets, the definition of "being there" is changing.

Our clients face a "flatter" world (to quote author and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman), where more countries participate as partners in a global business environment. Meanwhile, the changing influence model - whereby word-of-mouth recommendations, bloggers, and other citizen journalists have begun to rival the traditional institutions of influence - has made communications "flatter," as well.

This has dramatically altered the possibilities for PR agency business models, how we locate our offices, and how we best serve clients. There are new opportunities for PR to embrace a new, more flexible, nimble approach to global communications.

Going global today does not necessarily mean physical expansion. In computing, the shift from centralized systems to a distributed, peer-to-peer model is the order of the day; this metaphor can inform PR agency models. Our clients require excellent service and insight, relevant real-time data, and swift, strategic input, when and where they need it. Agencies must respond to rapid change in dynamic markets and competitive environments. At the same time, strong client relationships require a commitment to caring and understanding their global business context - not necessarily being neighbors.

I believe strongly that as the PR sector and the communications industry evolve, PR requires a flexible and nimble approach, driven by a global mindset and personalized service. A modern approach to global PR will address the challenges of idea isolation and emphasize integration, provide a distributed creative process, and enable a robust global structure for sharing.

We must use technology precisely and creatively to build standard approaches for knowledge sharing and business efficiency. And we need to couple the virtual benefits of technology with personalized, local service - with a face in the markets that are important to our clients.

Global virtual teams can be as effective as a highly distributed infrastructure. Smaller operations can come together on demand to design new systems, services, and processes to suit client needs.

At Waggener Edstrom, our global corporate communications practice maintains a lean full-time staff, but can call on the corporate communications experience of more than 15 additional experts on demand. This minimizes client costs while offering a formal structure for responding to immediate needs. It reduces the overhead costs of a headquarters, which can exceed the extra travel costs required. And time on the road with clients has helped secure those relationships.

Ultimately, PR agencies should strive to deliver the best client service and results based on the most efficient operations in this global climate. How to get there? Hire people with a global mindset who can offer a nuanced, deft touch and who know how to collaborate. And prioritize bringing the right intelligence and perspective to the table over building massive worldwide operations.

As The Economist's Adrian Wooldridge says, "It's a myth that size conquers all." That's always been true, but we're experiencing it anew in this flatter world.
Melissa Waggener Zorkin is CEO and president of Waggener Edstrom Worldwide.

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