Time spent overseas will not only help a PR professional's career blossom, it can also pay notable dividends for the employing organization.
Four years ago, Don Spetner, former EVP of corporate affairs for Korn/Ferry International, learned a new way to speak English.
His agency had just acquired the firm Whitehead Mann and Spetner went to the company's headquarters in London to oversee the integration and guide its communications work.
But after a few seemingly successful weeks of helping craft press releases and corporate newsletters, a UK colleague took Spetner aside and gave him some unexpected advice: Tone it down.
The enthusiastic, upbeat adjectives Spetner had been using in the firm's communications, while standard in the US, were more likely to strike British readers as disingenuous, he was told.
“At first I found their copy really boring,” recalls Spetner. “There would be an internal newsletter and it would not mention a new account the firm had won until the third paragraph. I did not know that it was culturally preferable to be more subtle and humble in that way.”
He soon internalized this more reserved tone. By the time Korn/Ferry's CEO – whom Spetner says “loved to punch the positive news” – visited the UK, the EVP was prepared to craft his boss' public remarks to ensure they resonated with the locals.
The lesson Spetner learned reflects just one of the career benefits communications pros gain from time spent in overseas markets. As companies become increasingly multinational and agency networks expand their footprint, international experience is approaching must-have status for those in PR.
With all the changes Russia has seen over the past few decades, it's no wonder its communications industry is transforming at a blink-and-you- will-miss-it speed.
A recent FleishmanHillard Vanguard survey of Russia-based senior communicators found they expect PR to become a much larger part of organizations' overall business strategy and the C-suite's decision-making process in the next two to three years.
This is obviously exciting news for PR practitioners in the region.
“Bright young stars can climb the ladder quickly if they show dedication, high professionalism, and ethics in everyday work,” says Elena Fadeeva (pictured), general director of FleishmanHillard Vanguard and head of communications for the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs.
For senior-level practitioners, the market also offers a number of intriguing possibilities.
“A lot of multinationals here use cutting-edge PR technologies, while large Russian corporations are also very sophisticated in technologies, particularly when running global communications campaigns,” adds Fadeeva. “Sometimes in Russia you can do in three months what it would take you a year to do elsewhere.”
Speed is a highly valued commodity in Russia and communicators are expected to operate at a faster pace. As such, any pro considering working there should be ready to hit the ground running.
The biggest challenge facing the country's PR industry remains the lack of high-level education options. There are only a handful of institutions teaching PR to international standards, but some firms in the region are looking to help. Fleishman, for example, has partnered with Moscow State University, Higher School of Economics, and Saint Petersburg State University to teach classes and case studies and provide trainee programs to those interested in pursuing a PR career.
To grasp the cultural nuances of any region, you simply must spend time there. And while speaking the language is certainly helpful, as is having visited the country in which your client or company's office is located, neither is a substitute for having lived and breathed a foreign culture.
“If you want to learn a new language, you can study CDs and videos online, but there's no substitute for being immersed in it,” says Paul Fox, director of corporate communications for P&G. “It might just be to learn how to hail a cab in China, but you learn to live and operate in this foreign place. It's an accelerant for learning.”
For that reason, P&G makes a practice of “moving its people around,” according to Fox.
He points to Damon Jones, an American who completed an assignment in London several years ago and now serves as communications director for P&G Asia, based in Singapore. Or Heather Valento, who works in global reputation and employee communications, but recently spent a year working in Europe.
“People should seize the opportunity to work and live in a country that is not their home,” emphasizes Fox.
Louise Harris, chief global strategist for Ruder Finn, agrees. Originally from the UK, Harris managed Ruder Finn's Asia-Pacific offices, including China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Australia.
Time spent overseas not only helps boost creativity, she adds, it also increases one's confidence.
“If you want to roll out a big idea,” advises Harris, “it's helpful to put yourself in the shoes of someone living in, say, China or France, and ask yourself, ‘How would this idea play out?' If you have firsthand knowledge of the country, the way people live, and who and what influences them, it gives you a genuine edge. You can't get that from Wikipedia.”
Business across borders
This embrace of international experience comes as the industry has become increasingly global. Technology makes it ever easier to communicate across the world. The supply chain now stretches across continents, as more companies draw talent, materials, and resources from all corners of the world. These changes require communications pros to speak to a growing range of audiences.
Spetner points to the tragedy in Bangladesh, where an eight-story factory in Savar collapsed at the end of April, killing more than 1,100 people. Advocacy groups protested major retailers such as Joe Fresh and Primark, which sourced their products from the factory, requiring a PR response that had to be immediate and precisely executed.
Retailers such as Walmart and JC Penney might not have had a direct connection to the factory, but since they sourced some products from the area it became incumbent on them to take action toward improving factory safety in Bangladesh. This is indicative of the multinational web in which major companies now function daily. Developments in far-flung parts of the world may require a response at an organization's highest levels and a staffer who understands those global environments will be in great demand.
“PR assumes a more important role in the overall marketing mix now, so we have to be smarter, better practitioners,” says Rob Mathias, regional CEO of North America for Ogilvy PR. “International experience helps you get that. Even when you are not applying it directly, it makes you a better counselor, adviser, and practitioner.”
By spending time abroad and actually meeting members at a foreign office, a PR pro is also able to make personal connections with the agency's or company's global network, since “dots on a map do not talk to each other,” as Mathias explains.
“For a CCO, global experience is either mandatory for a candidate or at least highly desirable,” explains Spetner, whose vast experience recruiting high-level communications executives has revealed that time spent abroad absolutely sets candidates apart. “So many of the issues CEOs have to deal with at big companies are based outside the US. They need people with that perspective.”
As Vietnam recovers from several economic speed bumps, its communications sector is evolving for the first time into a pure-play industry. A five-year boom in the country hit the brakes in 2010 after the global financial crisis, dampening foreign investment and slowing international demand for manufactured goods, which hurt the communications industry in the process.
As it begins to come back, the nation faces further challenges posed by a domestic economy that has swung between high levels of inflation and interest rates to crippling debt.
“We have found ourselves pretty busy on the issues management front in the past year or so,” says Matthew Underwood (pictured), MD of Matterhorn Communications, Burson-Marsteller's partner agency in Vietnam.
Underwood, who has spent almost a decade running PR firms in the country, recalls being told upon his arrival that the market was not ready for a pure PR firm and that he should include advertising in his offerings.
“PR in Vietnam was very much an advertising afterthought,” he notes. “We consciously set about distinguishing ourselves from being a ‘would you like fries with that' add-on.”
In recent years, though, Underwood has seen “PR creep its way out of advertising's shadow.” Thanks to a maturing market and the influence of international companies, a more sophisticated kind of PR is in demand.
This has been aided by the growth in available talent. An international-standard degree became available about five years ago that provides a “solid grounding in PR principles,” he adds. “As graduates have begun to make their way to the higher levels of organizations, they have helped instill those principles along the way.”
Maximizing the experience
Of course, while foreign experience is valuable for anyone's personal development, the company has
to notably benefit, too. As such, each agency and organization must set out criteria for who should go, for how long, and where.
Mathias gives the example of an employee who asked to work out of Ogilvy's Australia offices for four months, paraphrasing her reason for going as “the beaches are great.”
“That didn't quite do it,” he recalls.
On the other hand, he points to an encounter with Jeff Chertack, then a mid-level employee specializing in health policy, who came to Mathias with a carefully considered brief, including specific goals and benchmarks, on why he wanted to spend two to three months in Brussels to study how the European Union deals with its own health-policy decisions.
It proved to be a fruitful experience for everyone. Chertack went on to run Ogilvy's Brussels office and now heads up operations in Dubai.
“Jeff 's desire and learning objectives were clearly evident, as was the business need and the promise of ROI,” says Mathias. He advises PR pros interested in doing stints overseas to “go with specific things you want to accomplish. Be prepared to answer the questions, ‘What am I going to give?' and ‘How is my host going to benefit from me going abroad?'”
The length of time spent in a foreign country must also be considered carefully. While most would agree that a few weeks is not enough to fully take in another culture, Spetner offers a separate note of caution for career-minded communications pros: There is the possibility of staying too long.
“Some people end up loving the culture they are in so much and don't take the call back to headquarters,” he explains. “Five or ten years down the line, they may want to return and find it's more difficult. A two-year stint is probably ideal. Anything much longer than that could become a liability.”