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Social Issues, Globalization and Public Relations Implications

Posted on December 3, 2015, at 6:30 p.m.
by Katie Gatti.

An email sent to a potential employer varies significantly from a text sent to a close friend. A letter written to a grandparent might be a little more content-appropriate than a tweet fired off to a misbehaving significant other. The takeaway from these mundane interpersonal interactions? Audience and context matter.

A growing international community forces public relations practitioners to craft campaigns that transcend cultural norms, requiring more nuanced research to be effective.

Domestic ignorance
Of course, tone deafness isn’t an exclusively overseas concern — even domestic campaigns can culturally miss the mark.

Canadian public relations professional Martin Waxman explained, “As a Canadian communicator, finding a broader perspective is part of our DNA. For one thing, we’re not quite American and yet in many ways we’re similar. We also have Quebec with its own distinct culture and language. And in recent years, many new Canadians have immigrated to our country from all parts of the world and are helping make the culture more diverse.”

Public relations professionals can glean lessons in cultural awareness and sensitivity in the U.S., too.

In an attempt to connect with millennial consumers, Airbnb launched a campaign in San Francisco that called attention to the amount of money Airbnb paid the city in taxes.

One ad read,

“Dear San Francisco,

Last year, our guests and hosts brought over $12 million in hotel taxes to the city.


Another suggested,

“Dear Parking Enforcement,

Please use the $12 million in hotel taxes to feed all expired parking meters.


Undoubtedly, the irreverent tone was designed to strike a humorous chord while calling attention to the amount of money the city government collects from Airbnb’s services. Instead, it elicited scorn.

The ads were perceived as flippant and ignorant. An assistant professor at San Francisco State University posted on Facebook, “I’m happy to hear that you paid your taxes this year. I did too. Isn’t it awesome?”

Sassiness was widely mistaken for passive-aggressiveness. The ads’ politically infused nature was intended for Airbnb’s key audience: millennials, a group that wants brands to have a backbone and take a social stand, market research indicates. Of course, this approach is naturally more polarizing.

“We should all learn from our mistakes. Look at why something doesn’t work, find out why and do a better job the next time. But tone deafness is not exclusive to international campaigns. Companies do that in their own backyards,” said Mary Graybill, a public relations consultant and principal of Graybill Communication in Los Angeles.

Perhaps the ads flopped because the median age in San Francisco is 38.5 — not exactly the millennial market. Simple research (and maybe even some common sense) underscores that San Francisco is a mostly affluent, middle-aged market.

International blunders
How does a prominent chemical company connect with consumers? By emphasizing its “human element,” of course.

The Dow Chemical Company, an American multinational chemical corporation, selected GolinHarris for its public relations needs in 2012. Golin created a campaign called “The Human Element,” a series of ads that have been declared iconic in the U.S.

The successful campaign fared differently overseas.

Initially, each ad featured a picture of a person with an elemental box around their face, the letters “Hu” in the middle and a number in the upper right corner (to imitate an element on the periodic table). The picture was accompanied by that person’s story, declaring him or her “the human element.”

The idea, in summary, was that the human element is the most fundamental. Nothing could be more important or elemental, the ads suggested.

Scott Farrell, president of global corporate communications at GolinHarris, described the disastrous perceptions of the ads abroad at the 2015 PRSSA National Conference.

He explained how, in focus groups, Europeans and Asians found the ads to be very distasteful. The numbers on the faces, they said, reminded them of the Holocaust.

The heavy black boxes surrounding the heads reminded the Chinese of death, because in Chinese culture a deceased person’s face is surrounded by a black box in the casket.

What’s more, “Hu” was the name of the former general secretary of the Communist Party of China. So while Americans saw “Hu” as the first two letters of the word “Human,” the Chinese saw a Communist figurehead.

“The first thing to do when any mistake happens – cultural or otherwise – is to own it if it’s yours, apologize sincerely and then quickly take steps to make it right. And you should communicate what you’re doing so people know that you’re working on a resolution. Often this involves a combination of empathy, strategy and creativity to show the audience you really are sorry and that you’re committed to doing better next time,” said Waxman.

“The Human Element” campaign is an excellent example of a message that’s tremendously successful in the U.S., but egregiously offensive elsewhere. Thanks to the magic of focus groups, Golin was able to reassess the design and modify it to be more aesthetically pleasant in other countries.

Farrell explained how, by simply resizing and shifting the element box, the entire message of the ad changed for the Europeans and Asians. The Golin team made the box smaller, moved it off of the face and changed the color to white instead of black – boom, an international triumph.

It’s important to have a cross-cultural understanding of the way decisions are made and perceptions are formed outside of the Western world. Current social issues, historical events and cultural practices should be of the utmost concern, since they serve as the cultural context for all decisions.

Research, strategize and repeat
When crafting messages for countries you’ve never been to or cultures you’ve never experienced, sometimes the only way to understand how citizens will perceive your idea is by investing time and energy into extensive research to form an accurate, nuanced sensitivity. Research is a non-optional component of international campaigns, and focus groups are a necessity.

Waxman offered a creative suggestion for crafting a well-informed international perception. “I think Canadian perspectives like the Globe and Mail offer a different and possibly more open take on world issues. That said, I also read The New York Times, New Yorker and The Guardian and many posts that catch my attention. I’m drawn to great writing and storytelling.”

Globalization has thrust modern-day employees into a world where international awareness is crucial. Employees with culturally diverse knowledge will be valued more than those who fail to step outside their own backyards.

“In my case, I want to know what people in a different culture like and buy. What motivates them?” said Graybill. “I walk through grocery stores to see what people have in their baskets, look at magazines and newspapers if I can find English-language editions and watch subtitled movies.”

Paying attention to international media and forming an increasingly international outlook are daily tasks. How does this knowledge inform a student’s strategy in preparing for the professional world? “I think PR should include studies in psychology, cultural anthropology and ways people communicate: where the similarities are and how we differ. I also think social media is an opportunity to connect and build our networks around the world,” said Waxman.

Graybill’s parting advice is invaluable: “Meet and talk with people from different cultures. Travel outside of your own neighborhood and, if possible, country. And don’t just be a tourist. Try to go to places local people go. It’s all part of the lifelong learning process in today’s connected world.”

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