Global PR: what does the world think?

At ICCO’s summit last month, delegates from far and wide discussed the reality – and the limitations – of global PR. Peter Crush reports

'There's no such thing as local,' Ford V-P of comms and public affairs Stuart Dyble told the audience at last month's International Communications Consultancy Organisation (ICCO) summit.

'Globalisation is a reality. At my daily news calls, where I go through potential PR concerns, not one of them is solely a local issue. The 1980s was about doing one thing in one area without any worry about overlap; rarely can this happen today.'

Dyble's provocative opening statement on day one of this biannual
conference was an apt start, given that the theme for the two days was a question being grappled with by many PR consultancies – global PR: how much is myth and how much is reality?

At the heart of this debate is the question whether global brand positioning supersedes national differences (and, if so, if it negates the need for localised positioning). Ultimately, all these queries focused crucially on how global PR networks operate with local European and Asian agencies – and whether the one-sized 'think
global, keep PR global' mantra was more relevant than its 'think global, act local' antithesis.

Genesis PR, one of the leading Indian PR consultancies, was in surprise agreement with Dyble. CEO Ashwani Singla suggested that rather than marketing local brands to the Asian market and Asian sensibilities, PR could operate at a global level: 'A brand identity is merely a promise. In this sense, global consumers all speak the same language. Whether it's a US or Asian brand is immaterial. If it works and fulfils the promise, it will succeed,' he said.

Singla argued that PROs could get too wrapped up in making global brands overtly local. He said consumers did not see brands as necessarily having a country-specific origin – strengthening the argument that local translations are often unnecessary.

Brands such as Samsung, LG and Toyota were all touted as examples of successful brands with a nationless connotation – they all featured in Business Week's recent Top 100 brands report. The branding and imagery is the same worldwide: they are globally operating products. However, not all delegates agreed that global PR should ignore the local picture.

Local control
Fed-Ex senior V-P Bill Margaritis said he firmly believed in overall global values, but that he knew from experience that 'there is a propensity in the regions not to use the global story-telling model'.

He described his global communicators as 'go-to-market strategists' able to translate brands and PR according to regional requirements.
But even Margaritis accepted that the potential loss of control caused by such an approach was undesirable. 'The only ground rules I have for my global PROs is that if they don't have local expertise in certain countries they should get it from agencies that reside there,' he said. 'But it's their job to make sure it works.'

This command and control model is perhaps one solution to the innate problems of global PR. But what if round global blocks simply cannot fit into square national holes? One could sense this question on the lips of many of the delegates.

'The best PR is that which works on both a global and a national basis,' insisted Weber Shandwick CEO Harris Diamond. 'There is no question that globalisation is a reality, but all PR is local.' Diamond did not seem to agree with Singla's assertion that global brands did not need local adjustment. 'World connectivity does not mean harmonisation,' Diamond said.

'It does not mean people are becoming or thinking the same. If anything, I think it means the opposite. The EU has not made the French less French or the Germans less German. It would be great to have one idea or treatment, but this is fantasy,' he added.
According to Diamond, even 'think global, act local' is not an accurate descriptor of how global PR ought to work. 'It's an attempt to think about PR better, but "think global, act local" implies that a central strategy exists, a sort of NASA mission control.'

Power to the regions
Devolving central control by giving total responsibility to regional PR agencies might be the answer. But in the public conference sessions at the summit, few clients admitted that this ever happened. A presentation by IT enterprise provider SAP and Burson-Marsteller on 'central control/local delivery' revealed the agency was in place to manage local agencies.

B-M CEO for continental Europe Heidi Sinclair admitted this practice 'puts a lot of pressure on B-M' because it has to 'include' agencies at the same time as managing them. This was additionally difficult, she said, because of a centralised 'edict' (as it was referred to by SAP and B-M) for local agencies.

Communiqué's Denmark managing partner Sven Hauge sympathised with agencies that suffered the strain of trying to keep central control of the regions. 'The presentation by B-M and SAP about integration, dispensing with centralised press releases and passing workloads to areas in the globe with most expertise was interesting,' he said. 'But it hides the fact that this practice does not always produce a smooth working environment.

'In Denmark we run outside the B-M network, but still do PR for SAP
because a controlled, single PR team can't always work the best – we can talk to the client directly.'

Communiqué, however, might count itself lucky that it is trusted with handling large global accounts in the first place. It was clear from some of the discussions that clients often have reservations about entrusting their global PR plans to small, non-networked agencies – especially in the emerging eastern European markets.

'Eastern Europe and the CIS represent 40 per cent of the population of Europe, and in these areas PR's share of budget has grown by 60 per cent,' claimed Fleishman-Hillard Hong Kong senior V-P Alex Lanceley. But many global clients are worried that this growth is not equal – the political landscape means some areas, such as lobbying in Russia, are in sharp decline.

According to Lanceley there are 180 PR consultancies in Russia, more than 40 in Hungary, 28 in the Czech Republic and over 50 in Poland – an increase on last year, he said, with the pharmaceutical and public affairs sectors growing the fastest. But some at the conference highlighted their worries about the 'black PR market' in certain European regions. In Russia, for example, it was claimed that it is common practice for publications to charge agencies tariffs for editorial. But this talk angered delegates representing small agencies in Europe, who called for an end to such client suspicion.

 'I think this shows the mentality of unsophisticated buyers of PR,' argued Mmd public relations chief operating officer for central and eastern Europe Chris Dobson. The agency has offices across Europe, including Prague, specialises in corporate and public affairs, reflecting the growth being experienced by many European agencies.  It has just acquired healthcare specialist StratComm to strengthen its offering (headed by Dezo Krisztics, formerly of B-M and Deloitte & Touche).

This acquisition, claimed Dobson, illustrates the growing professionalism and diversity of eastern European agencies, many of which still carry the tag of outdated stereotypes. 'Just because we dress differently and don't speak perfect English does not mean we aren't as professional as UK and US PR agencies,' agreed one delegate.

However, one client bravely piped up:  'Adherence to codes of conduct is easy to say, but there are no guarantees, and this preys on my mind.'

So, in a PR world where some companies believe their brands are global enough not to warrant agency localisation, were there any clear conclusions from the summit? On one side, small agencies believed they had the local knowledge on the ground, while on the other, big clients may have underestimated their importance.

Some delegates pointed to a potent development that could force companies to adopt a more nationalised approach to their European and global PR – a growing anti-US sentiment.

If anti-Americanism is attaching itself to brands and giving them far less of a global appeal, companies could be compelled to use more country-specific PR tactics.

Myth making
'There is a deep suspicion of global brands, especially US brands, in the Middle East,' confirmed Mohamed A Al Ayed, CEO of Saudi Creative Communications Services/Trans-Arabian Creative Communications Services. 'Since working with brands such as Coke, we've had to deal with everything from dispelling myths that Coke contains pigs' blood to stories that if you read the logo backwards it looks like blasphemous Arabic text.' Al Ayed claimed such local problems meant companies could not apply homogeneous PR tactics across their territories and needed a more decentralised, region-by-region approach.

Other stories of regional misunderstanding were sprinkled into various presentations at the summit, reinforcing the idea that what works in one country might well fail in another.

Harris Diamond gave the example of an Australian ad for the Electrolux vacuum cleaner – suggesting that the 'Electrolux sucks' tagline would not work in America. Others told of sales of Ariel washing powder plummeting in Egypt following Ariel Sharon's
election as prime minister of Israel in 2001. While causing some amusement at the summit, the seriousness of these examples was not lost on delegates.

'When we were hired for product-launch work with Hewlett-Packard in Egypt, the first question journalists asked the CEO was: "What is H-P doing for Palestine?" If we hadn't briefed him about this possibility, this press event would have been a disaster,' said Al Ayed.

Global PR strategies operating in the shadow of politicisation was flagged up by many delegates as a growing trend. And it was clear that they were aware of the pressure this would bring to communicators. During her keynote speech, Body Shop founder Dame Anita Roddick discussed the rising consumer movement for workers' rights.

 'Consumers rightly want to know the bigger story. If business comms has no moral sympathy, then God help us all,' she said (PRWeek, 28 October).

British American Tobacco head of corporate communications Fran
Morrison survived a difficult half-hour, in which she attempted to illustrate how the company was embedding CSR principles globally through local PR agencies. Even if she failed to convince the audience of BAT's ethics, the need to have a regional framework to tackle the politicisation of global brands was strongly argued.

Some concluded that the best way to decipher whether global PR is myth or reality is by asking if local PR stories can always make it on to the global stage. When asked this question by Carlos Lareau, president of ICCO and B-M worldwide COO, most delegates disagreed, but claimed global stories could always go local.

With that the PR agencies represented at ICCO went home a little
happier, while the global clients clearly still had a lot to think about.

What does Global PR mean to you? 

Bill Margaritis, senior vice-president, Fed-Ex

'It means not asking whether you need it, but asking how you execute it. For us this is all about reputation. Consumers look at the character of an organisation so we want a common global voice.'

Michael Burrell, vice-president, Europe, Edelman
'It's how to put global brand messages into local markets. It's about getting the trust from clients to let you give business to indigenous agencies if you don't have the skills in a certain area already.'

Case study: Coca-Cola
Jonathan Chandler, director of public affairs and communications, EEME, Coca-Cola 'Coke's story is everyday, everywhere. In PR terms this means nothing stays local,' said Chandler. However, he argued this did not mean that all of Coke's PR was directed from the top down: 'Across borders we prefer having no single template.
Our argument is that our preferred centre of gravity is local, although local activity may appear on the global stage from
time to time.'

Coca-Cola has developed a 'Best Practice Guide'. It looks at which stories had cut-through and reached the news, and which did not, and then tries to analyse the reasons for this.

'The last 15 years have seen an explosion of noise. Sometimes
it is extremely difficult to get any news out,' Chandler said.
'This document is about making an effort to try to break through this.'

Coca-Cola supplements this analysis with its Public Affairs and Communications  Institute – which has effectively become a global public affairs group for the company's agencies – although it still delegates power. 'Nascent local knowledge is better than dictating what we are about,' added Chandler.

Where it suits, some campaigns are multinational – the most notable of late being the Coca-Cola train promoting the company's drinks brands, which last year passed through ten European countries and was billed as the largest musical campaign across Europe. All country agencies – marketing and PR – were brought in from the start to participate in the brainstorming for the event, called the 'Sound Waves' project. Chandler dubbed it 'a feast of thinking'.
He added: 'Coca-Cola is all about having what we call a diversity of thought – something that turns everything we do into an analysis of how it affects our corporate reputation.'

Quotes of the Conference
Nick Hindle, head of corporate affairs, McDonald's Restaurants

'Brands are becoming far more political. We're finding ourselves engaging in issues that are not core to our business but which people want to drag us into. Brands are being affected by issues in their country of origin. NOP World has shown that major American brands are now selling less in Europe.'

Dame Anita Roddick, founder, The Body Shop
'I'm deeply sceptical of global brands. People are irritated by the way brands have taken over – not just on billboards but in people's heads. Consumers are recognising this. We are seeing the rise
of a new type of consumer; they want to know the story behind a company and what it stands for.'

Tony Juniper, executive director, Friends of the Earth
'The rise of global brands has been all about the rise of financial return. CSR has been a secondary bolt-on, brought upon by crisis rather than corporate strategy. Companies have seized power and it's been allowed to be a legitimate shift. Brands now put profit in front of sustainability.'

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