Working in a New Culture: Should Your PR Strategy Be Global or International?

October 13, 2016


This article is adapted from Kara Alaimo’s book “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication,” published in August by Routledge.

PR practitioners are increasingly being called on to implement campaigns across multiple countries and cultures. One of the first questions you will need to answer when you communicate in different global markets is whether you will implement a single PR strategy around the world (a global approach) or craft different strategies for different countries and cultures (an international approach).

Proponents of the international approach argue that different countries and cultures are so diverse that they require strategies that are specifically designed to respond to local opportunities and challenges. The benefit of adopting a strictly local approach is that you are not beholden to concepts that do not make sense for your target audience. Because you are focusing single-mindedly on the country or culture at hand, you are more likely to arrive at an approach that will be effective for its target market.

However, the cost of starting from scratch in every new environment will often prove to be prohibitive for many organizations. Another significant downside to a strictly local approach is that an organization does not benefit from the range of creative ideas it can generate when its entire global PR team comes together to brainstorm a unified strategy. Additionally, a major disadvantage to such an approach is that your client will lack a coherent global identity. In fact, an approach too narrowly designed for one market may actually offend and alienate key stakeholders in other locations.

For example, in 2012, the Swedish furniture company IKEA faced a dilemma in the Saudi market. Its popular catalogues showcasing the company’s merchandise featured pictures of women. However, in Saudi Arabia, it is inappropriate for a woman to appear in public without her face and body covered. The company therefore decided to airbrush the women out of the version of the catalogue it would use in Saudi Arabia. When the Swedish version of the newspaper Metro broke the story about what the company had done, the incident quickly provoked global outrage.

The opposite of a local, or international, approach to public relations is adopting a single global strategy. Practitioners who apply this approach believe that there are certain best practices and messages that are generally successful across all countries and cultures.

Researchers Geert Hofstede, Gert Jan Hofstede and Michael Minkov note that part of our nature — which we all inherit in our genes — is “the human ability to feel fear, anger, love, joy, sadness and shame; the need to associate with others and to play and exercise oneself; and the facility to observe the environment and to talk about it with other humans.” Therefore, global messages can appeal to these common experiences.

Chris Nelson, crisis lead for the Americas at FleishmanHillard, explains that “there are certain universals — survival, hunger, fear, greed, love, pride — that we share as a species. Operating on a global stage, I can start by understanding how a situation plays into those universal elements, and then I can find people who can help me understand the local culture.”

Practitioners who adopt a global approach also typically believe that their organizations benefit from having a consistent global brand identity. Michael Morley, former deputy chairman of Edelman, argues that speaking with a global voice is now a “corporate necessity” because news travels rapidly around the world and “governments, consumer protection organizations, nongovernmental organizations and pressure groups of all kinds are making it their business to discover inconsistencies in multinational concerns.”

Adapting global strategies

Another advantage of establishing common PR practices at the global level is that it allows you to enforce universal ethical principles. As the IKEA example shows, local conduct is often judged by global standards — especially in an era in which news travels faster than ever via social media.

The downside of a strictly global approach to public relations, however, is that you run the risk of imposing strategies that work in certain circumstances in contexts in which they are inappropriate and/or ineffective. In practice, many global PR strategies today are developed in global headquarters in New York or London, where practitioners are often wholly unfamiliar with the principles of successful PR practice in Lagos or New Delhi. The trick to crafting a PR strategy that can be successful globally is soliciting input from practitioners around the world who know what will — and will not — work in local countries and cultures.

As Paulo Henrique Soares, head of communications for Vale, one of the world’s largest mining companies, explains, “Once a global strategy is developed, there is not a lot of room for adaptation, so what we have learned is that it is nice if a strategy is built together. A global strategy will only be global if it starts with global inputs.”

Today, most organizations craft some type of global approach to public relations, which they attempt to modify in local contexts. Some of the changes that organizations make to adapt their global strategies to local markets are drastic, while others are quite minor.

When May Hauer-Simmonds worked as an account executive for the global PR firm Burson-Marsteller in Guayaquil, Ecuador, she was responsible for adapting a global strategy developed by executives in Miami for the Ecuadorian market in order to launch a new Sony product. Miami-based executives recommended planning a local launch event with a set program in order to garner media coverage, but Latin Americans tend to have a “polychronic” view of time, in which punctuality is not a major priority. For this reason, instead of hosting an event in Ecuador that started at an exact time, the agency organized an open house so that, regardless of when journalists arrived, they could still participate.

When adapting your PR strategy for different global markets, remember three things:

  • Get local partners to help you — whether they are local staff, freelancers, global agencies or local PR agencies.
  • Enlist a translation company to “back translate” any translated messages back into their original language, in order to be sure that the meaning has not changed.
  • Make sure you understand local social expectations in the markets in which you work. Serge Giacomo, head of communications and institutional relations for GE in Latin America, says that in local communities in Latin America, citizens expect businesses to assume responsibility for actions totally unrelated to their business, such as building roads and schools.

By contrast, in the United States, such activities would fall strictly within the province of government. You will want to understand such expectations before beginning to work in a new culture.

Kara Alaimo, Ph.D.
Kara Alaimo, Ph.D., is a global PR consultant, assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University, and a former communicator at the U.N. and in the Obama administration. Her book “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication” was published by Routledge in August 2016. Follow her on Twitter: @karaalaimo.


Rod Cartwright says:

Great piece and I'd suggest that this is not - and cannot be - an either/or choice, as you say. At the risk of going all jargony on you, the notion of glocal is the middle-ground in this particular spectrum. And at the heart of developing strategies that are going to work at ALL levels must be the nub of what we do as communicators - listening. Listening to our clients, colleagues and target audiences locally - so that we are not trying to shoe-horn in a strategy that makes intuitive sense in its 'country of origin', but which rapidly falls over when implemented locally.

Oct. 26, 2016

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