IABC Q&A: The “Glocal” Opportunity – Communicators Help Businesses Break into BRIC Countries by “Thinking Globally and Acting Locally”
“The biggest challenge for businesses and the communicators who serve them now is having the ability to deliver the global brand and corporate message locally—and vice versa,” says Chris Sorek, director of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC). “You must be able to ‘go glocal’ if you are to do business and communicate with stakeholders in the fast-growing BRIC countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China,” adds Sorek, who has more than 30 years of experience in communication, public affairs and community relations. He comes to IABC from The Drinkaware Trust based in the U.K., where he was CEO.
“Communications as a practice is booming in those markets. I have seen it firsthand,” assures Sorek, who has a master’s degree in international marketing and communications and has worked on public information and humanitarian issues in Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America. He officially took on the leadership role with IABC on 2 July 2012.
Here’s his in-depth advise for businesses seeking to cross borders—as well as insight into how business communicators and PR pros can help them get there:
How does the PR and communications practice differ abroad as compared to the U.S.?
Let’s start with what is common. First off, all media want a good story. They all want the facts and they want them provided in a manner that is easy to use and localized. That said, many reporters here in the U.S. rely on the Internet to gain information—more so than other places. Other places rely more on face-to-face meetings, backgrounding sessions and the like. That’s a big difference. In other places, a phone interview isn’t good enough for a reporter. They’ll want it to be face-to-face.
There is also a different newsgathering culture in each country. They change region to region. What you see in Europe is a Western attitude toward newsgathering that focus on the facts and why the story matters. They are more blunt that way. But if you go to other places like Asia, Latin America and the Middle East … it might be more conversational, but not less professional.
Being a communicator my entire life, I have learned, however, that everybody wants news, facts and a story that is relevant and personalized to their audience. Stay focused on that and you can’t go very wrong.
What about beyond media relations—how about differences related to branding and, say, internal and corporate communications?
Again, there is more shared in common than differences. Look at any corporate entity and they need to be able to talk about the brand, speak to consumers and engage employees. It’s all the same mission—to raise the profile of the business and sell more product and services by doing that. Everybody is focused on the same thing—whether you’re a multinational or local firm.
OK, then what are some of the common day-to-day challenges of doing communications abroad—and what are your tips for overcoming those?
Well, first off: Nuance is just not going to cut it overseas. You have to speak more plainly—whether it’s internal communications or some other form of stakeholder engagement. They will translate exactly what you are saying and take it on face value. So speak plainly. Don’t spin it, allude to it, or add nuance—or you’ll be misquoted and misunderstood.
Can you give me an extreme example of those differences abroad?
Look at Belgium. They have two language—French and Dutch—and two media systems in one country. The have branches of non-profit organizations, for example, that are the same organization—but with one for the Walloons and one for the Dutch side. If you’re working with them, you have to reach out to each group separately.
How about corporate distrust—do you see that abroad like you do here?
I think you see levels of that everywhere, depending on a person or group’s political frame of reference. For example, if you’re talking to the left in France … you’re going to run into an issue where they don’t trust the agenda or credibility of business communications. You will get more support from the right in any EU country, of course.
The difference to focus on is the consumer. Focus on who and what the consumer is, grounded in research—and then deliver what they need to hear and how they like to consume information. Again, the Northern Hemisphere tends to focus on the Internet more as a communications vehicle than you see in the Southern Hemisphere. In addition, the specific channels—like Facebook, LinkedIn, and what have you—differ across regions and culture. Again, you have to do your consumer research to choose the right vehicles and channels for driving your message and engaging your stakeholders abroad.
What are the fastest growing markets for communications work and jobs abroad?
Undoubtedly, they are the BRIC countries—Brazil, Russia, India and China. Communications as a practice is booming in those markets. I have seen it firsthand.
They are all improving and the general business marketplace in those countries is becoming more sophisticated. That’s where to look for work and even opportunities to expand your business right now.
How is Brazil’s hosting of the 2016 Summer Olympics impacting this?
Brazil’s communications industry really started up in earnest in preparation for its Olympics bid. There were considerable societal issues and venue issues to be addressed—everybody is aware of those things. Many were addressed and Brazil really wants to showcase the Olympics.
What is their biggest communications challenge?
Their challenges are similar to those that were faced by China. They include questions about what was actually going on in the country in terms of how the venues were really coming along versus what the world was being told, what level of societal dislocation would come out of hosting the Olympics and so on. London had those issues, too … I just came from there. You had to deal with the fact that in building some of the venues, some businesses or people were displaced. These challenges don’t just raise in developing countries. The big questions are how this will impact the country economically and societally—as well as how they will be able to absorb all of this and pull it together within four years. The country will need to communicate the answers to those questions.
Shifting gears: Do you feel there is a misinformed perception abroad about PR and communications being synonymous with “spin”?
I disagree, of course, with any perceptions that “spin” is tied to PR. Public relations and professional communications is not about spin. It’s about telling the facts, putting them out there, and being open and transparent about it. People say spin is part of PR, but it’s not. It’s about presenting information and facts while also communicating your agenda. Now, propaganda is a totally different story. But that has nothing to do with the business of being a professional communicator.
I did encounter those “spin” stereotypes abroad. But the way to solve that is to show that you are open and transparent—and to follow best PR and communications practices. That’s why we have a code of ethics. Follow the IABC code of ethics—and those or related industry associations—and you’ll be on the right side of things.
What would you say to businesses abroad about the power of communications to grow their business?
This is one of the areas people need to take a hard look at when it comes to communications. The practice has subsectors falling under it—ranging from media relations and public affairs to IR and internal communications. Each of these areas can move the needle for business. It’s good to look at each of them on their own merits to understand the power of communications.
- Media relations: Earned media coverage matters a great deal. No matter where you are worldwide, getting an endorsement through communications efforts that is not paid for (like ads are) is the greatest endorsement you can get. Arguably, this is more valuable than paid media placement, because it is more credible as it comes via a third party. For example, Apple generates millions in earned media just by the positive press accolades it receives—so much so that executives recently stated that they sometimes don’t pay for advertising because the power of earned media alone moves the needle for them.
- Social media: In social media, your consumers and stakeholders talk about you and your brand. They lead the agenda and drive opinions—and they actually “own” the conversation around your brand; you don’t. Look at Yelp. It’s a perfect example where people vote on your brand and your company. So communications at that social media level builds brand, customer loyalty and corporate reputation. All of those things tie directly to the bottom line.
- Employee communications: Employees are your brand champions. Disengaged employees tie directly to the bottom line. They impact sales. You need to make sure your workforce is motivated and understands what the company is all about to help you drive your organizational goals. Without that, you are in trouble.
What is the value of IABC membership—and why should multinationals look for IABC members as partners or hires?
Our members are part of the worldwide community of communicators and together they share best practices, improve their skills and stay ahead of change. They enjoy exclusive access to the latest ideas and experts and continue to improve their skillsets. If you are looking at an IABC member, that individual can bring all of these things to the table, while also being able tot tap into a global network in need be. In addition, accreditation through IABC ensures that you’re dealing with someone who is tested and vetted at the highest level as a professional.
What are your tips for communicators seeking to work internationally?
- Learn another language. This is critical, even though English is the business language of the world. Leading language to study would likely be Chinese, Portuguese, Russian or Arabic.
- Jump at opportunities where you work. In your current job, you might have an opportunity to do something with an international branch or operation. If so, jump on it. It gives you an idea of what it’s like to do communications overseas.
- Don’t overlook jobs on the nonprofit and humanitarian side for your initial international experience. (For example, look into Devex.)
- Leverage LinkedIn—it’s a great spot to find international jobs and offers strong international networking.
- Work with recruiters who have international experience, including: Korn Ferry, Spencer Stuart, Russell Reynolds Associates, The Foundry in London, Egon Zehnder International, Heidrick & Struggles, and specialists like Heyman and Associates.
What brands are doing a great job in global communications? What do they do right?
I think the winners in this are those that are “global and local” at the same time. That’s the model for future growth: the global brand presence delivered locally. I think Virgin does a great job of this. HSBC does a really good job at it and so do Samsung and Toyota.
How important is research and measurement to global communications?
Without research and measurement, you can’t define or track the ROI of communications. It’s really as simple as that. The specific how-to’s of research and measurement will be explored in great detail at the “The 2012 IABC and PRIME Research and Measurement Conference” in November (register here). But for now, I think it’s enough to say that research and measurement are key to communications in terms of identifying what it can do and what it has done. Without it, it’s impossible to understand benchmarks and whether or not your communications team or program delivered against them.
For example, in my last job, we ID’d ROI against KPIs for each of our targeted audiences. We were able to show who came to the website and where—so that we could adjust the investment and resources we put into the site. Because of that, we were able to adjust our communications on the site to compel them to act on the information in different ways—eventually leading them to a variety of calls to action that were measurable by clicks and what have you. In our case, we were trying to reduce the amount that people were drinking via the site Drink Aware and the “My Drink Aware” tool. We were able to see a drop from 5.2 units a day to 3.9 units a day (of alcohol consumption), which is a significant drop. That certainly underscores the value of measurement in communications.
What do you see as the biggest challenge and biggest opportunity for communications worldwide?
I think the biggest challenge is what I just mentioned—being able to be global and local at the same time. It’s also the biggest opportunity, while also being able to capitalize on the integration of different communications channels these days, including social media, of course. The challenge there is knowing which channels are best for your particular stakeholders wherever they are in the world, and recognizing that those channels could change based on geographic location. That will be driven by your communications research.