Home Archive May 2010 How do professionals avoid making faux pas during cross-border comms?
How do professionals avoid making faux pas during cross-border comms?
Monday, 24 May 2010 16:04

 We may live in a global community, but cultural differences still exist that can trip up communicators that talk to foreign audiences: So how do professionals avoid making faux pas during cross-border comms? Neil Gibbons reports

In 2002, HSBC (‘The world’s local bank’) launched a series of TV campaigns around the idea of ‘local knowledge’. Each one depicted a foreign visitor coming unstuck by failing to understand local customs – a tourist upsetting Brazilian locals by not realising that the OK symbol is considered deeply offensive; a visitor to China politely finishing a eel supper, inadvertently suggesting he’s not been given enough; a US golfer scoring a hole-inone and being expected to buy expensive gifts for his Japanese associates, rather than a round of drinks in the clubhouse.

It was a clever way of showcasing the bank’s global reach but also offered a useful reminder: for all the talk of a ‘global village’, there remain ingrained cultural differences that can act as barriers to fluid interaction.

Harjiv Singh knows these differences better than most. He is co-CEO and founder of Gutenberg Communications, an agency with offices in Boston, London, New Delhi, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Mumbai. Dealing with PR for global corporations, from an integrated global standpoint, he has seen first-hand the different communication styles of these regions. The key difference, he believes, is attitude.

“Cross-border communication can be a minefield,” he says. “It requires some knowledge of the culture you engage with and an appreciation of local nuances.

“Some countries like the US have a very direct way of communication, especially when it comes to business communication. In America, it is quite appropriate to get to the business at hand right away after a minimal amount of small talk. Contrast this to countries like India, where you have to first get to know your interlocutor a little and develop a personal rapport before addressing the business at hand.”

There are several common pitfalls to be wary of. In Asia, Singh points out, respect and loss of face are important cultural factors. Consequently, in places as different as India and Japan, the word “no” is rarely used in business dealings to avoid upsetting the other party.

Communicators should also take heed of whether a culture is hierarchical or not. Singh points to the example of Foreign Secretary David Miliband. On a recent visit to India he met with his counterpart Pranab Mukherjee. During their interactions, Miliband referred to the 75-year-old Indian by his first name whereas Pranab Mukherjee continued to address the much younger Miliband as “your excellency” and “Mr Miliband”. This was a major faux pas.

“The Indian media labelled Miliband’s visit a disaster and the UK foreign secretary as tactless,” says Singh. “This was a cultural communication gaffe of diplomatic proportions as Indian culture is built on respect of elders and typically when engaging someone in India who is older in age, it is important to address them with respect using the appropriate honorific.”

Born and raised in India, Carson Dalton is a senior press officer at BT’s Press Office in London. He moved to the UK a year ago from India, where he headed up BT’s comms team in India, and has found the cultural difference eye-opening.

He has seen vast differences in both written and spoken communication. “Typically in India you will find releases and the language is more bullish,” he says, adding that execs should be fully briefed on cultural differences before travelling. “In India, a journalist will fire a question midway through an exec’s response. It can turn into rapid fire too.”

Of course, there are equally pertinent regional differences closer to home. Emma Keenan is vice president at Open2Europe, a global communications agency based in Paris. She argues that, even within the European Union, there are marked differences in what national media want.

“With over 27 different member countries and at least the same number of languages to handle, activities need to be customised,” she says. “The overall strategy and tools used (press releases, interviews) remain the same, but the messages to be communicated, the way they are phrased, their content, and the audiences they are targeted towards should vary.

“Many make the mistake of reducing international communication down to machine gun tactics – ‘Let’s take exactly the same press release, use a free online translation service and mass distribute it to a prepurchased press list or via a news wire.’ If you’re lucky, you might get a few random hits, but that’s not international communication! Has your message been fully understood? Does it really mean something to journalists all around the world and even more importantly, on a local level?”

Her mantra is that “international communication t is not about globalisation, but localisation” and, to that end, she strongly advocates thorough research.

“The first, essential step to communicating successfully abroad is understanding your target market inside out,” she says. “Once you have established the core messages you want to convey on an international level, a localised, carefully adapted communications plan needs to be put in place, country-by-country.”

But, she argues, it’s not just about the content of the message but the manner in which it’s delivered. Knowing how to approach the media in each region is also key – what time of the day to call them, what customs should be respected, whether to speak to them on a first or second name basis are all valid questions.

By understanding the cultural nuances, communicators can not only avoid pitfalls, but also reap benefits. As Singh points out, “An understanding of local culture can and make the messenger come across as understanding and credible. When US President John F. Kennedy visited West Berlin in 1963, he began his speech with ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ (I am a Berliner) which drew fantastic applause. It is now remembered as one of his best speeches. Sometimes adding a word from the local language or a local phrase can not only enhance the credibility of the messenger but also make the message moreffective for the audience.”

Sometimes it’s not just the audience that needs to be considered; it’s the team. Many cross-border communicators will be working with local teams who are themselves steeped in a slightly different working culture. That too calls for sensitivity.

“If a manager in Western Europe or the US has a direct report in Asia they need to keep the local culture in mind,” says Singh, “especially when it comes to providing negative feedback. In today’s globalised world teams work together virtually and it is important that each member working on a cross border team have some cultural sensitivity training.”

BT’s Dalton agrees and argues that instead of enforcing a foreign approach on local teams, flexibility works best. “At BT, all country teams report into the centre, but all teams are empowered to drive local strategy,” he says. “The success for cross border comms is that, while it is critical to have central themes and messages, country and regional teams need to have the freedom to operate as per local flavour.”

Some regions struggle with the notion of flexibility. Scotsman Morris Grant was retained by the Communist Party of China (CPC) on a year-long contract in the run-up to the opening of the Beijing Olympics to prepare their English-speaking news teams and PR people on what to expect from the Western media arriving to cover the Games. He was also responsible for giving direction to the content of the English-language version of the State’s news website ‘china.org.cn’ which is updated around the clock seven days a week.

He recalls being struck by the rigidity of the Chinese approach.

“More often than not in Western Europe, there’s an element of flexibility to all strands of communication,” he says. “When a strategy document has been produced, abundant room remains for a shifting of gears as the work is progressed. The road map is simply a guide and those involved will remain fluid. In essence the approach can be described as highlystructured opportunism. In China the approach to communications remains firmly within an identified framework.”

So can one prepare for comms in a new territory? “I attempted to identify training courses which might give me a few pointers on what to expect,” says Grant. “I spoke to a number of UK Government-funded agencies, among them Scottish Enterprise, who have a presence in China.

“I made a very determined effort to read everything I could get my hands on. This gave me a feel for the country and some pointers on what to expect. However, attempting to swot up on what to expect can prove futile.It was on the newsroom and PR ‘shop floors’ that I learned what communications in China was actually all about.”  



Chinese takeaways

Inside the Chinese news machine, Morris Grant found a different news agenda at play – food for thought for communicators attempting to engage the media over there. 

“I was keen to promote a ‘lightness of touch’ in some areas as I felt we were being overly serious about almost everything,” he says. “The feel of the copy was straight and lacked splashes of colour. Although subtle persuasion was required, I found that my colleagues could be receptive to things they found a bit odd. So if things are explained properly and their value understood the potential to tweak long held views is possible.

“The treatment of a big story by Western news outlets may differ greatly from the coverage given to it by the likes of the Xinhua News Agency, China News, Shanghai Daily and china.org.cn itself. In fact there’s the potential for something we regard as being of huge importance not even making a couple of paragraphs anywhere at all in the Chinese media.

“At my first few editorial meetings I’d be excited about something that didn’t make the cut for a whole host of reasons. I was a little bit too Western in my overall views of what news was. My ‘news values’ were different. It was a simple as that. However, if given the opportunity to explain why something was worth covering, there was the potential to sway the editorial team.”