Feature: Continental concerns

A stellar quartet of PR practitioners met Ian Hall in Geneva to discuss the major issues their organisations face in communicating messages across Europe

Is it possible to successfully implement a pan-European PR strategy? How different are markets from the Atlantic to the Urals when it comes to handling comms?

These were just two questions posed when PRWeek brought together four senior comms professionals in Geneva for a special roundtable on the subject of European PR.

The quartet shared some common ground, but also put forward very different opinions on some of the matters discussed. The dominant topic was how the pace of Westernisation across much of central and eastern Europe (CEE) is affecting clients' comms planning.

Alistair McLeish, whose agency MMD has 17 offices across (and outside) CEE, said Westernisation is accelerating. He particularly noted the increasing 24-hour nature of news, more widespread adoption of the internet and its impact on issues management across Europe.

No hiding place
‘It used to be possible to "bury" issues in eastern Europe - it isn't any more,' he said. ‘A multinational in CEE is as vulnerable to a crisis, if not more so, than one anywhere else.'

Nick Hotham, comms director for Procter & Gamble's Global Beautycare business, agreed: ‘Issues are now travelling faster and faster to all corners of Europe. We recently had a problem with an ingredient in one of our products. The news about it went everywhere in 24 hours. Our need is increasingly one of consistency of messaging.'

For André Benoît, corporate affairs V-P at tobacco company JT International, scrutiny of his firm is more intense than suffered by most. He pointed out he has to continually re-educate country-level staff on how the media landscape is changing. ‘I get told by the individual markets that PR is "different here",' he said. ‘I have to tell them they can't continue to think like that. The media don't see country differences any more.

‘We emphasise the fact we are a global corporation, and that we apply our own internal high standards in all markets. In this context we cannot water down these standards in this market or the other.'

All of the panellists noted that regulatory matters - especially those concerning environmental compliance - can often be subject to greater scrutiny from European media than, say, UK media. This regulatory impact is even spreading to the non-member countries that want to join the club. Benoît said this was having a noticable effect on JTI's comms in these regions. ‘The influence of Brussels on the regulatory scene is significant. Countries such as Romania and Bulgaria are being carried by the "Brussels effect".

‘All of the different markets were arbitrarily going in many directions on regulatory reform, but now they're acknowledging they have to do things the Brussels way. This has begun to help us because it has reduced the wild differences between markets.

‘For JTI, this allows us to use the EU factor in our external communications, by emphasising the need for a particular government to not stray from the EU norms.'

Turning to Russia, McLeish observed its nascent PR industry, claiming that many agencies there are failing to keep up with changes in the corporate environment. ‘We are witnessing huge changes in clients' general management in Russia,' he said. ‘They are more corporate in culture. Previously they were more entrepreneurial and cut more slack by head office. But a more sophisticated demand for services is developing, and this is not yet reflected in PR service provision or budgets.'

The three in-house participants had different approaches to measurement and evaluation. Nollaig Forrest, public affairs leader at chemicals and healthcare firm Du Pont, uses a US-developed monitoring system that measures the impact of speaking opportunities and whether they are positive, neutral or negative. However, she said it can be skewed by regional differences - for instance in how press conferences are arranged. Forrest explained: ‘In Russia, local PROs still believe that the quantity of journalists present at media events is more important than quality. I would much prefer a more limited number of face-to-face interviews to 50 general interviews. It doesn't make our reporting consistent.'

Treading carefully
Hotham argued: ‘I don't think anyone has successfully worked out how to measure corporate reputation and the like among European stakeholders.' He recalled a recent attempt to try and canvass journalist views of P&G in Spain. ‘It almost turned into a real problem, because journalists reacted angrily to being involved in what was essentially our market research.'

One fascinating topic of conversation was on the use of agencies across different territories. ‘The benefits of hiring a large agency covering many countries diminish as you go eastwards in Europe,' said Benoît. ‘When it comes to corporate comms, we leave very little to local markets to handle.'

He added: ‘It's starting to make sense for us to think about using a regional agency, as markets mature. One advantage of using an agency is it helps us bring in-house staff up to standard in terms of transparency and process.'

Hotham, who works with around 50 agencies across Europe, said he was ‘always surprised at how well centrally co-ordinated campaigns work', given the number of potential problems. ‘The default position is that centrally run campaigns don't work, especially for media relations.'

That said, Hotham believes consumers' ‘desire for greater local authenticity from their brands' will result in P&G changing its comms strategy. ‘We'll need to ensure greater relevance of the brand locally. We recently did a launch in Spain and around 20 per cent of the campaign had local input from agencies there. I can see this figure increasing.'

There was even time to touch upon blogging, perhaps the trendiest weapon in the comms professional's arsenal. Forrest revealed: ‘Du Pont is doing things comms-wise in emerging markets that we don't do in core territories. For example, I am developing a blogging strategy for our leaders to engage in an ongoing and direct conversation with people interested in our science.

‘We tend to be much more innovative in emerging markets. I get greater freedom in eastern Europe. It would take me ages to get the authority to launch a blog in western Europe. People tend to be web savvy in emerging markets. Given the history and culture of underground comms and its ties with dispersed communities, some people are more comfortable with non-formal media, and have been using it for longer than many in the west. Information sources and dynamics differ from those in western countries.'

For others though, new media is not as prevalent as it is in, say, the UK. ‘I'm sceptical about the influence of new media in eastern Europe, in respect of contribution to business success,' said Hotham. ‘In Russia, for example, the best comms strategy for P&G is often to tie up with a TV programme. For communicating to people in the "istan" countries and outside the main cities in Russia, companies need to use TV and stay with the traditional media. In low-income markets you need to go for broadcast media - TV and radio. Reach is crucial.'

The spread of viral
But viral marketing, it seems, is as relevant in Prague and Warsaw as it is in London and Paris. ‘CEE has been very quick on the pick-up of mobile telephony - there's huge mobile penetration,' said McLeish. ‘This means an opportunity for viral marketing in the consumer sector. But wider use of the internet among the middle classes is more significant.'

Asked what is most affecting P&G's comms planning, Hotham revealed: ‘The decline in consumers' trust of authority - but as you head south and east across Europe, this is less of a problem.'

All participants agreed that the proliferation of new media is as much an opportunity for comms professionals as it is a threat, requiring greater rapidity in tackling crises, both potential and current.

WHO'S WHO

Nollaig Forrest, public affairs leader, Du Pont
Has responsibility for media relations, employee engagement, issues and crisis comms: oversees one staffer in Poland, Moscow, Johannesburg and Istanbul. Also uses five local agencies.

Nick Hotham, comms director, Procter & Gamble Global Beautycare
Works with regional agencies of record to create central strategy and content (surveys, brand ambassadors, photos). He is in charge of around ten to 15 in-house comms staff per country in western Europe, fewer in CEE. Uses around 50 PR agencies across EMEA, with MS&L and Ketchum in London the main regional aides.

Alistair McLeish, chairman, MMD
Specialist in European corporate comms, the agency having offices in 17 European countries ranging from Austria and Turkey to Bosnia and Kazakhstan. Like everyone on the roundtable, McLeish is based in Geneva.

André Benoît, V-P corporate affairs,  JT International   
In charge of media and government relations across 12 markets, with 30 staff reporting to him and their local management. Works with agencies in each market; for example, in Russia: one agency for media relations, one for brand marketing, and one for government relations work.

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