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Global Firms Reap Benefits of Multilingual Employees

Posted: March 10, 2014, 7:59 p.m.
by Shannon Auvil.

In the ever-changing environment of public relations, any skill that places you apart from the pack might be exactly the one to perfect.

The need for multilingual employees is growing nationwide, especially in communications firms and global companies that interact with and serve international audiences. FleishmanHillard, a public relations and integrated marketing firm headquartered in St. Louis, has more than 80 offices in almost 30 countries.

“The need for language skills depends, office to office, in terms of the local audience,” Karen Mahoney, senior vice president of talent acquisition at FleishmanHillard, said. “For example, in Miami, it’s important to have English-Spanish bilingual speakers. That might not be the case in the Chicago office.

Mahoney said language fluency has to cover reading, writing and speaking. FleishmanHillard sometimes finds a challenge recruiting strong non-English writers.

“Bilingual professionals reach out to Spanish-speaking media with pitches and press releases, and that’s where the writing abilities come in,” Mahoney said.

Mahoney said FleishmanHillard confronts an obstacle when looking for people with strong bilingual writing skills.

“Applicants not only have to be fluent speakers, but they need to be able to read and write effectively in the language we need,” Mahoney said. “We value 100 percent fluency.”

The need for bilingual speakers is growing coast to coast. Mahoney is based in San Francisco, where FleishmanHillard works closely with Asian offices.

“Chinese is important, but not required. There isn’t a lot of Chinese writing to do, but it is valuable because it allows us to create better relationships with our clients,” Mahoney said.

Each office is different and needs vary among locations. However, FleishmanHillard looks for people who are appropriate for certain countries and cultures. Norms vary widely, and employees must be prepared to interact with clients from different backgrounds and cultures.

“We look for the ability to understand cultures, especially Asian cultures that might be more foreign than Latino cultures,” Mahoney said. “We need employees to be fluent in the language, but we also look for subject matter expertise. Someone familiar with Chinese culture would fit the Shanghai client.”

Bilingual employees take on major roles in reaching out to a particular segment of the media, especially in the United States. In Asia, a wider variety of languages is needed. Local languages include Korean, Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese.

Government agencies recruit bilingual employees heavily. According to an October 2013 CNNMoney article, the U.S. military, State Department and other agencies like the CIA and the FBI are desperate for foreign language speakers. Translators and interpreters fluent in Asian and Middle Eastern languages are especially hard to find and quick to be hired.

At Ogilvy & Mather, an international advertising, marketing and public relations agency headquartered in New York City, foreign language skills can put applicants ahead of others on certain accounts.

“For specific accounts that have language requirements, we’ll recruit an individual who is bilingual,” Malvika Cherian, HR generalist at Ogilvy PR’s NYC headquarters said. “If there are three excellent applicants for one specific job, the one person who is bilingual has that edge in terms of language abilities.”

Cherian said new clients’ needs are always changing, and you never know when language skills might be necessary to an account. When there’s a need, those skills suddenly become vital to day-to-day operations.

“On a specific account, we might want to target French speakers,” Cherian said. “That would make the most sense if, for example, the client preferred all conference calls to be conducted in French. We would actively recruit for someone who could do the job at hand and speak the language fluently.”

Ogilvy values bilingual skills and even aims to expand current employees’ skills. Ogilvy offers beginner, intermediate and advanced courses in Spanish and Italian.

“Even if you aren’t required to utilize other language skills for your accounts, we want to provide all our employees with the opportunity to continue learning and growing within the workplace. Offering language courses is just one way we do that,” Cherian said.

The need for bilingual employees is growing, especially for accounts that require language specifications. Working knowledge or fluency in another language will always be seen as a positive and can be very beneficial in the long run as you grow in your career and interact with colleagues and clients across the globe.

“I think it is fantastic that at Ogilvy we provide the opportunity for employees to develop professionally – and personally – through our language courses,” Cherian said. “It clearly indicates that this is something we value within the organization.”

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