Reaching Across Borders
Posted At: March 30, 2011 1:58 PM
by Katy Echols
Globalization is an ever-growing trend. It has seeped into every aspect of life from communication and fashion to business and politics. To keep up with this trend, businesses are adapting their operations.
We are seeing globalization everywhere: businesses are relocating, opening offices in foreign cities and sending employees abroad for projects. Globalization is here to stay in a big way.
Impact on PR
The public relations industry is no exception. According to the Institute for Public Relations, there are approximately 4.5 million PR professionals worldwide. That number is steadily increasing.
In PR, the environment plays a central role in operations. Understanding the culture, the publics and the economic and political conditions is critical to maintaining control and relevancy. Typically, this understanding comes easily, but as companies relocate, PR practitioners have to learn to understand their new environments. Transitioning smoothly into new cultures and environments is crucial to operating effectively.
Even if practitioners do not physically relocate, they have to consider their international publics. Most organizations are no longer limited to communication with publics of their home country, but rather publics internationally, as they conduct business across the world and connect with key publics via the Internet and other online media.
Transitioning smoothly requires overcoming many challenges. Though not all challenges are foreseeable, many can be eliminated by simply studying the country. Educating yourself will help you know what to expect. A couple of useful resources are World Banks and the CIA World Fact Book. Both resources provide information on hundreds of countries around the world, including business execution practices and cultural analyses.
The power of observation
Regardless of the country, there are some overriding practices that will help you cope during a transition into a new culture.
First, observation is key. Tom Sims, a manager for BP Egypt, learned the importance of observation while working a few years in Cairo, Egypt.
Though Sims went through training before his assignment, he said it was still important to “observe in order to make the most successful transition possible.” Observation and picking up on cultural nuances—rather than clinging to a “Western mindset”— proved effective.
Sims realized that business operations differed greatly in Cairo from the U.S. Instead of a “trickling up” process, Cairo functioned under a “male-dominated, top-down driven decision process.” Once he picked up on this, Sims adapted his way of working and was successful.
“I had to reverse my business paradigm,” Sims said.
Keeping a keen observational eye can eliminate many frustrations. First observing and then adapting is a proactive way to assimilate to a new environment.
Another beneficial practice is to focus on the positives. This is especially useful when combating culture shock. Elements such as food, art and music are often unique to a country and can outshine any negatives. Concentrating on the benefits overall also lends purpose and perspective to any assignment.
CBS recently reported that tax policies are one of the incentives causing companies to move. Companies have found “tax havens” in locales such as Switzerland and Caribbean islands. Other benefits found overall are valuable experiences and knowledge from working with an international staff, higher pay opportunities and a higher standard of living.
Roll with the punches
In addition to keeping an eye out and a positive attitude, Sims summed up some key behaviors that garner success:
• Exercise profound patience
• Remain adaptable and flexible
• Embrace change and cultural differences
• Maintain a sense of humor
Essentially, Sims explained that you have to “roll with the punches.” Keep a positive attitude and bear in mind the strengths, beliefs and values of the culture you are immersed in.
Whether operating from the U.S., or within other countries, you should consider the business cultures of the countries you deal with. Mike Lowther, vice president of planning and business development for Noble Corp, has learned this firsthand while working in Switzerland.
Lowther said that time zones dictate his schedule.
“If you work in Europe, you plan your schedule to deal with Asia in the morning and the Americas in the afternoon,” Lowther said.
Unfortunately, America does not acknowledge this.
“It appears the U.S. primarily thinks about what time it is in the U.S. without consideration to any other factor,” Lowther said.
Even after 18 months in Switzerland, he still gets meeting requests for 11:00 p.m. his time. Because of this, Lowther advises others to decide set business hours and decline all meetings and business calls outside those hours. Otherwise, you could be conducting business in the middle of the night.
Aside from time-zone issues, Lowther said the second biggest difficulty to overcome is the language difference.
“Some days I feel like a deaf mute only able to point and use sign language,” he said.
This issue, like many, is one only bettered with time.
Expect the unexpected
It’s important to remember that some things just take time. There will always be unexpected challenges. Marty Makulski, a partner at Opportune LLP, learned to expect the unexpected while establishing an office in London for Sirius Solutions.
Throughout the process, Makulski noted that there are some things you just cannot prepare for.
“Cultural norms, jargon, phrases and transport are key items you don’t get a full appreciation or flavor for without living somewhere for a number of months,” Makulski said.
While training and studying prior to a foreign assignment can be a preemptive way to eliminate frustrations, it is important to remember that no amount of preparation can account for every challenge.
The point for PR
The PR industry is transitioning, alongside the rest of the business world, to global scale operations. Publics are no longer neatly contained to a single environment or culture. Issues are no longer limited to local or even nationwide concerns. Messages are no longer targeted toward an easily specified demographic.
This transition is fast-moving and only speeding up. PR professionals have to stay abreast of this transition by staying ahead of the curve. Doing so will ensure greater ease in reaching across borders to build relationships.
photo by Katy Echols (in Prague at a local market)