Market Watch: The New World of Public Relations

By Tim Fry

April 9, 2013

A few years ago, I participated in one of the largest new business pitches that my agency had ever competed for. The client’s global business, which was complex and in a rapidly changing industry, reached every major market around the world. Needless to say, a lot hung in the balance.

As the pitch approached, I was in the office seven days a week for six straight weeks, fielding research across dozens of markets; creating, scrapping and re-creating creative platforms; and agonizing over which people to put in the room. With only an hour to present, should we bring in only a few select star presenters so as to not overwhelm the client? Or should we bring in our global team to ensure the client that we had capable people in every region of the world? In the end, we brought in individuals from 23 countries, and we gave everybody an opportunity to voice his or her local perspective on the client’s business.

We won the pitch. When we asked why they chose us, the client said that we struck the right balance, communicating a core creative idea and recognizing the vast differences among their markets.

Thinking about PR in a global context is not new. But as our profession continues to be transformed by the impact of new technology, clients with global businesses are rethinking their requirements of the agencies that serve them. My firm recently interviewed several senior corporate communications executives from large multinational companies. They gave us their perspectives on everything from global resource allocation to global integration.

Imperative #1:

Invest for the future, with an eye toward measurable results.

The annual budgeting process can be complex. Funds are often allocated automatically based on revenues, then adjusted up or down to reflect current priorities.

When we spoke with communications leaders, it quickly became clear that getting the geographic allocation right meant looking at two things:

First, while the company has to consider how important a given region is to the company presently, they also need to ask, “How important is that region to our future?” Nearly every company considers its current revenue footprint when setting communications budgets. However, participants also told us that they equally consider what the company wants the revenue footprint to be five or 10 years ahead. In other words, they see communications as part of what will help their organizations achieve their future footprint and revenue growth. 

Second, the company needs to address what they want to accomplish this year in a given region, but equally they have to ask themselves, “What do we need to deliver this year in that region?” The executives we spoke with are focusing their budgets on winning the winnable. A project or objective must not only make strides toward the future, but it must also be demonstrably and quantifiably achievable.

Imperative #2:

Expect emerging markets to cost more, not less.

Those of us in global roles have all been there: We are asked to expand a project into a new market, then we are expected to deliver as much coverage as we’re securing in the United States or Europe on a fraction of the budget. This reflects a common assumption that large emerging markets are somehow “cheaper” for program development and execution.

Our communications leaders see the world differently. These executives rarely adjust budgets based on market-by-market cost differences. All of them recognize that where communications is concerned, there isn’t a “cheaper” place to do our work. In any market around the world, if some things are less expensive, then inevitably other things will be more expensive. 

What drives budgets for these leaders doesn’t have much to do with relative labor costs or the strength of currencies; it is the strategic importance of the work. And because emerging markets for many of these companies are of paramount importance to their future growth, the budgets for these markets are growing rapidly.

Most global communicators have encountered frustrating assumptions about how far the dollar or euro will go in developing countries, encountering executive decision makers who expect full-blown communications support in China or India for substantially less than they invest in the United States or Europe, which are a fraction of the size.

Rectifying this requires taking a lesson from the communications leaders we interviewed: To secure appropriate budgets around the world, we in public relations need to understand global business strategies and objectives. We need to present clients with realistic plans attached to achievable and measurable deliverables, with budgets rooted in the strategic importance of that market in the years ahead. We also need to listen carefully to our local markets to appreciate how the nuances of those markets impact how we do our work.

Imperative #3:

Globalize strategies and standards, but keep tactics local.

“Global integration” is a common catchphrase today.  The communications leaders we interviewed agree that global integration means that their corporate brand is positioned consistently, with disciplined messaging around the globe.

Global integration also means that knowledge transfer is both ongoing and seamless within their teams, between their teams and across their agencies — that is, best practices, knowledge and skills sharing must flow quickly around the globe and infuse all communications.

Third, for some, global integration also means that objectives and metrics are consistent from place to place — that teams around the world have a shared and common understanding of what communications should achieve and how it should be measured.

Notably, to these leaders, global integration does not mean using the same content around the world. They don’t believe in replicating certain tactics blindly in multiple countries. This is where the world remains local to the leaders we interviewed. This basic tenet of respecting global strategies but being mindful of local cultures is widely supported in these communications officers’ domains.

When we asked executives, the value of global agencies was clear to them:

  • Global agencies are said to bring big-picture thinking and high-level strategy. Their wide breadth of client experience and their cream-of-the-crop talent enables them to bring both broad and narrow perspectives, new ideas and strategic sophistication.
  • Global agencies provide access to global influencers. While local agencies are likely to own relationships with local media and policymakers, global agencies can tap the Davos crowd and complement that with relationships with local luminaries.
  • Global agencies have staff in many regions of the globe. The benefit is seen not only in the ability to provide day-to-day boots on the ground throughout the world, but also in the capability to instantly deploy additional people with distinctive skills and know-how. As leaders see it, the breadth and depth of staff at a global agency equips the company to move rapidly to fill in gaps and respond to changing circumstances.
  • Global agencies can help drive even higher standards and consistency around the world, across company business units and agency teams. This deployment is said to be rooted in an agency’s ability to provide oversight and the transfer of knowledge and skills.
  • Global agencies must offer both breadth and depth of specialist talent. Jacks-of-all-trades will not suffice. Instead, agencies must be able to provide experts in specific industries, using the most up-to-date and proven communications tools to reach different kinds of stakeholders. Experts must also flawlessly apply and execute on-the-ground knowledge in local markets as necessary.

The new global world of communications suggests a demand for truly global agencies — agencies with a wide network of best-in-class subject matter experts, a multimarket footprint, the culture and infrastructure to seamlessly connect the pieces, and local expertise rooted deeply in markets worldwide.

Tim Fry
Tim Fry leads Weber Shandwick’s Client Relationship Leader (CRL) program. He has a background in storytelling strategy and coaching, public opinion research, brand campaigns and product launches for some of the world’s most respected brands.


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