The four Cs of centralized vs localized message development

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Cost, Complexity, Control and Credibility

By Diane K. Rose

We’ve all heard the mantra that organizational messaging must be consistent across all stakeholders — that it solidifies branding, builds trust with customers and employees, communicates the value of products and services and so on.

Got it. Understood.

Now throw globalization into the mix. Whether you embrace or detest it, globalization has increased complexity for public relations practitioners as more businesses find expansion across borders easier to do as well as essential for their continued growth.

For PR professionals responsible for message development, one of the first conundrums of multi-national expansion is determining whether corporate messaging should be consistent across all audiences or be localized to specific regions.

One way to make a decision is to look at the problem via the four Cs: cost, complexity, control and credibility.

Cost and Complexity

Cost and complexity go hand in hand. As activities get more complex, the cost will begin to rise. Here are a few examples:

  • Customizing messages for another one, two, three or more regions or countries can quickly turn into a budget-buster, especially when you need to bring on local PR experts or agencies and conduct market-specific research. And don’t forget that someone has to manage the process and the vendors.
  • Localized messaging development is useless if not integrated into a company’s broad array of communication vehicles, such as marketing collateral and sales presentations. Tracking changes and versions of updated collateral is complicated and translations are costly.
  • For most international organizations, websites are at the heart of their external communications strategy. If messaging is centralized, one website for all publics is usually considered sufficient. If messaging is localized, you’re looking at an expensive and complex overhaul of website architecture and content.
  • Monitoring of both traditional and social media definitely gets more convoluted as messages are localized, especially when attempting to measure quality rather than quantity of coverage.
  • Media training and pre-media briefings become trickier for global spokespeople as well as for corporate PR practitioners, all who have to tailor messages for specific audiences.
  • Keeping decision making and tactics execution centralized often eliminates the need to hire in-region PR personnel. Technology today has practically eliminated the need for a brick and mortar presence in many cases, a cost savings not to be ignored.

Control

PR types generally are control freaks. Our job, after all, is ensuring we have a tight rein on both the message and its dissemination. If I were a betting person, I’d wager a year’s worth of cappuccinos that the incumbent corporate headquarters PR team would prefer to protect its authority and turf by keeping decision making centralized at corporate headquarters rather than allowing it to be diffused around the globe. (Deep in your heart, you know I’m right here because it’s good to be top dog.)

Credibility

Companies earn credibility and trust as well as a positive reputation when they consistently demonstrate, through messaging as well as through other actions, that they understand and respect their customers.

What many PR professionals often forget is that creating credibility is more than verifying a new product name via the Urban Dictionary. (Thank you, Urban Dictionary, for once helping to halt forward progress on a name that, it turns out, also is slang for male genitalia in France.) It’s more than knowing not to e-blast a single Christmas greeting to all global customers, including those in Saudi Arabia and Israel. And it’s more than simply translating website content word-for-word and then touting a multi-cultural website.

In actuality, earning credibility comes from paying attention to the finer points of cross-cultural understanding.

Blurring Boundaries”, an article published a couple of years ago in an International Association of Business Communicator’s publication, included results of a survey that asked European communications directors about differences they had with their global headquarters. The directors pointed out a number of challenges they believe were not fully appreciated by their non-European corporate headquarters team. In addition to the obvious ones about language, time zones and business customs, the survey respondents pointed out a lack of understanding of European Union directives, regulatory frameworks and country legislation; little knowledge of different media landscapes; and ignorance of the significance of past “skeletons in the local cupboard”, those events and issues (e.g., the loss of a client and why) known locally but not necessarily throughout corporate headquarters.

A policy of centralized message development often overlooks these not-so-obvious disparities that must be taken into consideration and influence how we communicate with regional audiences.

Making a Choice: Centralized or Localized?

If message development is approached from the viewpoints of cost, complexity and control, the decision to keep it centralized at corporate headquarters is easy. However, the fourth C — credibility — is the one that has the most effect on creating a positive reputation for an organization and, therefore, has enough weight on its own to tip the scale to the side of decentralized message development.

We’ve read the books, spent money on consultants and agencies and formed internal and external focus groups in our quests to develop messages that resonate with all stakeholders.

We’ve preached to our spokespeople that they must stay on message and we’ve spent countless hours weaving carefully crafted phrases and words into marketing collateral, website copy, social media postings and media briefing books. However, if an organization’s strategy is to expand beyond it headquarters region and make local commitments to its global customers, corporate message decision makers should embrace the same commitments through action as well as words.

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Diane K. Rose’s career mix in public relations, journalism and marketing has spanned more than 20 years and includes time spent in the corporate, not-for-profit, higher education and government sectors. Today, she is an independent communications consultant and writer based in Largo, Florida, USA, with a focus on content strategy and messaging. Connect with Diane through her blog or on Twitter.

15 COMMENTS

  1. Diane, Thank you for this article. I have a couple of questions for you. First, what about another C, that is culture? In particular, the variety of cultures that are evident in society (and these are not simply national these days with greater pluralism within different countries and regions). Also, there is focus on organizational culture and hence communications often seek to reflect that – which can be at odds with individual or wider cultural influences that affect engagement and understanding.

    Secondly, I wonder about this idea of messaging – which seems to me to imply a very detailed level of seeking to control communications. Are you focusing on actual words, statements, messages and how these are translated and interpreted? My feeling is that organizations need to work less at a micro-level and more at a macro-level which may avoid some of the global-local debate. So if there is more common understanding of why communications is taking place and what the organisation is seeking to achieve, its values and other wider parameters of communication, then surely the selection of individual words and how things are said could be more localised?

    Of course, the same issues also apply when thinking of images or multimedia communications – and that is going to be the ongoing future challenge. Perhaps PR practitioners also need to learn to focus less on words and more on the wider aspects of communication, including visual representation where the cultural issues are even more complicated.

    • Lots of good points to discuss here, Heather, so I’ll look at each of your paragraphs separately.

      Paragraph 1: I agree that culture must be brought into the messaging equation but do think “society” and “organizational” cultures are worthy of separate discussions.

      First, society and culture: You are correct that making assumptions about beliefs, backgrounds and experiences because of a physical address can backfire in many parts of the world today. Our daily news is full of reports about clashes caused by cultural differences within what many think are fairly homogeneous countries (e.g., France, many former Soviet Union countries and, to a point, the United States). In terms of localized vs. regional message development, I think the local team has much to contribute as its members are more sensitive to the sometimes under-the-radar issues related to in-region cultural disparities. In this case, I think we can put “culture” in the “credibility” category.

      Second: organization and culture: I was primarily looking at messaging from an external communications perspective. And, yes, organizational culture does impact public messaging, which I address some in my next paragraph. In terms of internal audiences – a subject worthy of its own blog posting – I believe messages that reinforce an organization’s culture should be initially developed at the macro level to help create a sense of common purpose across the company. However, the dissemination and reinforcement of the messaging must take into consideration local cultures. I saw this illustrated when watching a CEO give pretty much the same employee presentation in India, California and Hong Kong, and then ask if anyone had questions. What a huge difference in the reaction in different locales in the types of questions asked and even in the number of hands that were raised. Fortunately, because we had spoken to our local team members about how presentation would be received and how employees likely would react, we were well prepared, for example, for the fact that nobody in Hong Kong was going to be the first to ask a question directly to the CEO in front of his or her peers.

      Paragraph 2: I agree with you. High-level messages do need to have their genesis at the macro level to consistently reflect the company’s overall purpose, strategic goals and organizational culture/beliefs across borders. Once done, leeway must be given to local teams to determine the best ways to support those messages locally taking into consideration local audience language, customs, cultures and expectations. Of course, this works much better if the headquarters and regional teams work together as the local insight provided regional teams is invaluable when developing macro messages.

      Paragraph 3: You couldn’t be more correct about awareness of visual elements when it comes to international public relations. When I directed a corporate PR team for a global company based in the United States, we were especially diligent in this area as the company grew and expanded the number of countries in which it operated. The team spent a great amount of time ensuring the photos used in websites, videos, presentations and publications were representative of our global customers. The same went for internal communications where we deliberately highlighted the diversity of the global workforce visually and made efforts to ensure different cultures were represented appropriately. Any PR practitioner, whether he or she is working in a global company or not, must be cognizant of visual diversity.

  2. Interesting and competent post as well as a good discussion here.

    I like the way Diane responded to Heather’s very to-the-point issues.

    Allow me to say that it is likely that the eyebrows that Diane’s post may raise at a first nitty-gritty glance would benefit if they were in the context of a global stakeholder relationship governance framework rather than an international communication one.

    Here is what I mean:

    1. public relations, even when activated for a local shopkeeper in Tennessee, is a global profession, at least in the sense that one would be at a competitive disadvantage if not aware of how competition elsewhere is governing its own relationship systems;

    2. an organization operating in a multi-territorial setting (not necessarily an international one, as the practice of pr surely differs in New York, in Dallas or in Butte) needs to be well aware not only of the generic principles of its stakeholder relationship policy (stakeholder group by stakeholder group); but must clearly understand that these principles are valid everywhere in the world only if and when they are carefully adapted to (and integrated in) the specific public relations infrastructure of a given territory where that organization is operating. And, most importantly, vice versa: i.e. specific applications are valid in a single territory only if and when they are guided by generic principles.

    3. the territorial public relations infrastructure is constituted by a thorough and updated comprehension of its legal/institutional, economic, political, socio-cultural, active citizenship and media systems.

    Within this context then Diane’s points, Heather’s comments and the former’s response are all well taken and highly useful for any professional not only one who deals from country to country.

  3. Diane raises some very real issues and does so well. In this discussion PR is secondary to marketing. We are discussing images which require tweaking and we are discussing how they can embody different meanings in different cultures, countries and contexts. McDonald’s plays this game well – “Oh look, mum”, says the South Korean girl on her for first visit to the U.S.A, “they have McDonald’s here too.” (credit goes to N Klein in NoLogo for insight).

    Here’s the rub – established images and messages are often irreconcilable with promoting the product (or the content) in different markets. For instance, McDonald’s is always McDonald’s but not necessarily so, or desirably so, in the eyes of the beholder (or cheeseburger muncher). One only has to think of how the image of Che Guevara has become stripped of its content and is now hip among the bourgeoisie to understand the problem (and marketing potential of inversions and redefinitions). Toni raises the issue of stakeholders. But our marketing colleagues remind us of how superficial and self-interested this high-fluting puff really is (and I don’t say that as a criticism so much as a realist). In my view, they (the marketeers) remind us that the challenge of positioning things is great fun, and that’s something I love about them and often find lacking in PRs.

  4. Paul, you need to decide if you prefer to be a negationist or disinformed.
    This (what you call..) high fluting puff is now at the core of the process of monetary evaluation of any brand, according the Intenational Standards Organization.
    Catch up my friend, or pass over to the the tea party….

  5. Not wishing to get in the middle of Toni and Paul but… I probably will do.

    First, to address Toni – I think that Diane raises practical issues relating to international communications and these may well fall within the concept of a “global stakeholder relationship governance framework”, but beyond the principles and macro-factors that you raise, what does this mean for those developing communications that can be implemented? Where I feel sympathy for Paul’s view is because the concept needs translating into actions – and surely building relationships (whether transactional or otherwise) are predominantly based on communications. Which means that considering how to build relationships involved looking at ways of presenting and responding to information in an international/global/multi-cultural context.

    Indeed, since all relationships with all stakeholders cannot be managed centrally, this has to mean ensuring common understanding with localised insight in any multinational organisation. But, considering consistency or at least a lack of inconsistency in the intention and outcome of communications within these relationships is something that can be guided from the head office function. To this extent, I feel it can be helpful to consider a relationship framework (that’s support for Toni then) as this may focus attention more on the purpose and consequence of communications rather than simply the tactical words/images etc.

    I’m also with Paul in terms of how marketing colleagues often tackle such challenges – sometimes with wider insight (even fun), although, it has to be said, sometimes with disastrous ignorance of cultural issues (there are many campaigns such as Cadbury’s faux pas over Kashmir – http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/2207298.stm).

    Good marketing looks for linkage between consumer psychology and a brand and this can mean finding common emotions and other aspects that have either universality or can be interpreted in different countries without diminishing the intent. There are many models and ideas – largely based on investment in research – that are used by the major brands for their marketing campaigns.

    Rather than dismissing marketing as PR practitioners often do, there is much merit in adopting at least the investment in research to inform PR campaigns particularly when global considerations are involved.

  6. When I introduced the generic principles and specific applications issue in my earlier comment I did not address the centralised-decentralised issue because every organization has a different culture and lives in a different environment wherever it operates.

    Certainly there needs to be somewhere in the organization where generic principles are formulated (however participatory their formulation may be, and this again reflects the organization’s culture).

    In many cases however the ‘one company one voice’ myth implies that this space is usually where the communiation contents are also formulated, and often this happens in the same place where the principles are formulated.

    It works sometimes, but the specific application hurdles are a major risk factor.

    So there is, in my experience, not one way of doing things.

    The one way however is a full awareness amongst all public relators working with or for the organization everywhere of the interdependence between the generic and the specific.

    Marketing communication is in no way different from corporate.

    The simple fact that today the monetary value of a brand can be determined only by involving all stakeholders and not only consumers implies that marketing, finance and corporate are one thing, as much as they are of course highly specific in their respective practices.

    If the conceptual framework is at the base of the action, then clearly the one company one voice myth needs to transit to a one company many voices practice and the stakeholder relationship approach allows the organization to ensure global coeherence to its overall narrative as well as align itself to the specific public relations infrastructure of a territory.
    For example, a shared, understood and always updated description of those different infrastructures becomes a mandatory tool for any organization working in diverse territories.

    Similarly of course the generic principles need to be well understood and cosidered in every stakeholder relationship activity, that is of course based mostly on communication.

    The focus on contents (what in this context are called messages..) is certainly important.

    Yet effectiveness is more likely (in the sense that least many mistakes may be avoided) in this state of mind.
    I do not deny, of course, the relevance of global brands and agree that many socioculturale values trascend borders.
    But even operational marketing public relations practices allow the organization to reach more market effectiveness in a given territory if there is conscious awarenes and application of the specific principles.

    From this perspective, again in operational marketing, public relations can bring much more value than blanket advertising (and even advertising is seriously reconsidering and beginning to practice).

  7. I probably should have waited to read the comments above until after I had more coffee this early morning in Florida. I did not, so the best we can hope for is a bit of coherency with the following two random thoughts.

    1. In August, I added a comment to Heather’s post titled “Public relations should embrace not deny its marketing links” and acknowledged the critical relationship between PR and marketing. Marketing team decisions (e.g., choosing an image for an advertisement, developing a sales sheet) can effect the reputation of an organization. Although my original post above did not delve into the area, I still see value in having an integrated “corporate communications” team approach that encompasses marketing and PR. Both add value to each others’ activities and both serve critical roles in an organization. More practically, sharing resources can be a time and budget saver for such items as stakeholder research. This approach also makes sense when an organization has limited resources for local feet on the ground. One person who understands both the PR and marketing sides of the house is better than nobody in the field and less expensive than two.

    2. Although I theoretically believe that high-level message development should have its genesis centrally and then be interpreted/implemented locally in a way that meets the organization’s local stakeholder needs, I fully realize this model is not always practical from a personnel standpoint (more money woes). Making use of local PR agencies — either on retainer or on a per project basis — is one of the best ways to fill gaps and gain insight about local stakeholders (e.g., European Union procedures for M&A approvals, language preferences for new releases in China, best format and time for media events in India, deadlines for financial analysts in New York City).

  8. Diane, Heather and Toni: I have mulled over this conversation for a couple of days. Trouble with the “Cs” that originated from the military — remember the 3 Cs: Command Control and Comms, is that we may forget something pivotal in this analysis. In this case it is a “B” for behaviour. Diane still has “Control” in her 4Cs.

    Now, how does an enterprise syncronize local and global communications. A concept that may be useful in this connection is the notion of the “Glocal”. An enterprise should think globally but act locally. For no matter how sleek messages from corporate headquarters are, it will always be local actions that carry the day.

    Toni and Heather are spot on about generic concepts of stakeholder engagement and cultural influences in all comms. “Culture” does indeed fit in the symmentry — but perhaps in this case we should look outside the box and include a “B.”

  9. Don, I did not mention the cultural and political questionability of the control factor only to avoid to ‘arouse’ my friend (the swiss gnome…), but you are certainly correct.
    Even Mintzberg hints at the idea of taking control out of managerial competencies…and this even before social media…

    Many agree with you on the concept of ‘glocalism’.
    I do not disagree as mmuch as I dislike the term, but only if it is absolutely clear that the generic principles depend on the specific applications as much as the other way around.
    Otherwise it may sound as just a politically correct lip service to localism.

  10. A couple of thoughts. First, to come back to the relationship perspective, if we consider this as a factor in constructing global-local communications, we can see that some stakeholders have relationships which mean that they have both global and local interests in the organisation. For example, employees will be interested in the corporate level as well as how the strategy translates locally and other local issues/matters. Likewise, financial stakeholders will want to consider international aspects of an organisation, alongside any specific local matters that affect their investments. Community/action groups will have particular interests which may relate to a locality or to a global issue.

    Second point is that online media means that what is local is often global and what is global is localised. This affects the “control” aspects in different ways. It increases the importance of consistency (hence a need to “control” with greater transparency and porosity of organisational behaviour – to use the ‘B’ word), but also makes it ever harder to control communications as online agency means anyone with an interest can take messages and both interepret and recommunicate these easily and immediately. At the same time, online technologies of course have provided a means by which global communications can be managed more readily – whether that is organisation-wide emails, online publications, hierarchy/linkages for localising websites or the use of social media.

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