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How communicators lead @ the best global companies.



Globalization is reshaping business strategy and practice. And communicators are taking a leadership role at organizations that can be identified as "best practices" companies.

These are but two of many findings from a recently released report, "Best Practices in Global Communications," prepared by the Public Affairs Group, Inc., of Washington, D.C. The lessons and principles offered reveal that communicating globally is not for the timid or small-thinking practitioner.

From its extensive research and analysis, PAG, Inc. concludes that the communication function must take the lead in actively supporting the corporation. Where this is happening at best practices companies, communicators are supporting other functions (e.g., marketing and advertising) within their organizations' global business priorities.

Doing business internationally, rapidly becoming a way of life, has never been more complex, competitive and difficult - nor more important. The companies that become globally successful earn the label "best practices companies."

PAG confirms that top executives who consider their companies successful internationally spend 40 percent of their time on global issues. Communication support for the leading companies begins with the global business plan; that is, all communication is in sync with the business plan.

What distinguishes global communicators from those who are simply struggling to figure it out? Global communicators lead, PAG suggests, by:

* Employing the best global mix of communication people

* Measuring results within each country and region

* Using a combination of communication media

* Using a communication-marketing-advertising mix

* Building the corporate brand globally, country by country

* Appointing an experienced international staff

Global Branding

The best practices report says that global branding is the No. issue in global communication. Global branding is the process a company uses to make its name, logo or brand known worldwide. Global branding demands a careful country-by-country strategy instead of one worldwide system, because buying habits, distribution, regulations and cultural factors vary from region to region.

It's easy to identify the most recognized global brands. Coca-Cola, Sony, Disney and Shell immediately come to mind - with Coke being the best known brand image in the world. A deliberate focus on globalization has been a strategic intent for Coca-Cola.

For a company to be global, strategic communication is essential. A list of global companies that communicate well would include General Electric, Ford, Kodak, Time Warner, Mitsubishi, Philip Morris, Nestle, Citibank and Heinz.

Communicators need to be involved in developing the strategy and determining how best to communicate it. The idea is to adopt an overall plan and then adapt it by making it specific in different markets. The best communicators build links with business units and line management during planning, then carry out and report on the communication programs.

Effective communication begins at the top. The CEO and other leaders must set a global direction. One best practices CEO, David Whitwam of Whirlpool, says, "We should deliberately encourage our employees to think like owners so that they...come to believe that it is in their best interest to create a global organization."

Communicators Lead

Communicators at best practices companies are taking a leadership role. With today's executives traveling and speaking in more countries than ever, there's extra pressure on the communication staff to make sure their senior leaders are visible.

This gives communicators a chance to show their understanding of global expansion, working hand in hand with country directors, marketing, advertising, public affairs and government relations people.

When a corporation has a global communication plan, it must execute it in multiple markets. Frank Vogl, head of Vogl Communications, Inc., an international PR firm, says a global vision and other corporate values must be understood by all employees around the world. At this point, language and culture issues become critical.

What strengths should a global communication staff have? Vogl suggests knowledge of global issues, knowledge of other cultures and other languages in addition to English, market knowledge and the ability to respond quickly to opportunities and crises anywhere, and the ability to communicate instantly with important audiences around the world.

Staffing for global communication deserves special attention. Balance is needed between long-term employees with broad experience and those with specific country expertise, cultural knowledge and language skills. Communicators must be linked both to management in each country and to the corporate offices. Using on-site staffers, either local nationals or long-time expatriates, is vital.

Best practices companies are insisting on hiring and retaining strong staffs for international communication. And what of communicators' reluctant allies in human resources, who don't see communication as that important? Only 13 percent of HR staffers see global communication as a top issue, PAG reports. Clearly, they need to buy into and support the communication effort.

Global education has never been more important and the communication staff needs to be involved in the process. The best companies make global learning part of orientation when hiring staff for a country. This includes language and cultural training as well as business training.

Technology Drives

Technology, of course, is the engine driving global business and communication. After reporting a 100 percent increase in use of technology from 1995 to 1998, PAG sees another doubling in the next three years. Corporations are finding the Internet, intranets, e-mail, teleconferencing and videoconferencing essential for moving information instantly around the globe.

Looking at how companies transmit messages of global commitment, PAG says 60 percent of corporations now use some of these six communication tools: mission statements, goal statements, annual reports, stockholder reports, web sites and executive speeches. Best practices companies have integrated their message into all six. Considering the web as a global medium, PAG predicts that 90 percent of companies will offer global sites by 2000.

A good global site has a pronounced global icon, makes access easy, offers multiple languages, provides superior information and carries current information. The corporate web site is the ideal medium for disseminating the organization's vision.

The PAG best practices team reviewed the global sites of 90 corporations and picked the top 10. They are, in alphabetical order, AT&T, Chrysler (now DaimlerChrysler), DuPont, Gateway, IBM, Lucent Technologies, Panasonic, Reuters, Roche and Texas Instruments.

Best practices companies are using a vast amount of research. And although global markets add several layers of complexity to research planning and execution, serious international players must do the research.

Only with careful public opinion sampling, market research and brand research can companies hope to understand environments for doing business in other countries.

The Internet provides a powerful, fast and low-cost way to conduct research worldwide. Essential data should include local market and public opinion research; information from customers, suppliers and partners; media research; and data from government institutions.

To reach their global stakeholders, companies are reaching employees through direct communication from headquarters and through regional or country managers. And all communication methods, from face-to-face to videoconferencing, are being used to reach external audiences: customers, distributors, media, government, associations, business forums, the investment community and the public.

Assessing Results

Measurement, a key to assessing effectiveness, needs to be part of any global communication effort: Programs must be measured both for their local impact and for how well they contribute toward meeting corporate strategic goals. Communication measurement, including benchmarking, objective analysis, focus groups and surveys, should show how programs help the global bottom line.

Alliances and partnerships provide a useful strategy for companies that have neither the resources nor the expertise to enter all their target markets around the world. Alliances, PAG concludes, beat out innovation as the growth strategy of the future. But it's a tricky approach, and alliances often fail because of differences in corporate personality and cultures.

As a marketing trend, alliances present a challenge to communicators to collaborate with their other-country counterparts. Despite the tiresome familiarity of "think globally, act locally," the idea of adapting a standard approach to a different culture remains apt. Omnipresent hamburger maker McDonald's epitomizes this adaptive approach: Noodles are its number one product in Japan, but beer is tops in Germany.

Where there's a business plan for a partnership, there also should be a joint communication plan. Such a plan should cover marketing communication and advertising; financial communication; policy and public affairs, including community relations; executive communication; and media relations.

Steve Pearson of EDS, part of a global communication forum sponsored by PAG, notes, "Being global means that you need to be able to share information, resources and capabilities at a moment's notice with other offices around the world. That's the key to being global, and not merely being international."

Proven Techniques Work

"Media relations is delicate," PAG observes, "in the speed-driven world of communication." Communicators must know global issues, global media and global reporters. The best companies find that proven techniques for getting media attention seem to work everywhere in the world. Still, companies should have plans and capabilities on a country-by-country basis.

Global media relations need to be measured like any other business effort, and the best companies are tracking press coverage worldwide. This task can be onerous, because media practices vary widely. In parts of the Middle East and China, for example, paying journalists to place a story is not unknown. The global constant is to use universal media hooks, such as sports or celebrities, to draw attention to companies, products or services.

Global investor relations is another important communication discipline. Corporate listings are becoming global as companies based "overseas" list on the New York Stock Exchange. Conversely, U.S. companies are moving aggressively to list on overseas exchanges. Global investing in corporate entities has been booming in the past few years.

Driven by fast technology, senior executives and boards of directors are pushing to report corporate performance - and communication is the critical element.

Annual reports, the backbone of financial communication, increasingly are being produced in English by "overseas" companies to attract investors from the U.S. and other English-speaking countries. It's now a widespread practice, for instance, for Japanese companies to produce annual reports in English.

Variance Between Countries

Around the world, there is significant pressure from various regulatory bodies and stock exchanges to disclose financial information. This is rarely an easy task. Huge variations exist in disclosure requirements from nation to nation, although steps are being taken to require more uniform reporting of financial performance.

Public affairs and government relations are other areas beset by enormous differences in rules and practices among countries. Environmental regulations in Finland and Sweden, for example, are stricter than in most other nations. And rules regarding intellectual property rights are looser in Asia than in the U.S. and western Europe.

Government relations, too, has never been more vital, requiring early warnings, monitoring and strategic communication support. Best practices companies such as IBM, AT&T and Dow Chemical form global issues advisory boards to raise and manage important issues internationally.

Lobbying is another area where companies must adapt to local customs, laws and regulations. Brussels PR expert Richard Linning, for example, offers a number of seemingly cynical but realistic dos and don'ts for lobbying in the European Union.

Among his dos: Keep it short, be discreet, be precise, be patient, be ready to compromise, and remember that "politics is the art of the possible. Among the don'ts don't completely trust a public official, don't ask for the impossible, don't forget national politics, don't wave your nation's flag and don't boast.

When it comes to community relations, again, practices vary by country. Corporations must show their commitment and responsibility to communities through a variety of outreach programs. Oil company Unocal sees social responsibility as a sort of three-legged stool, with one leg being community relations, one leg environmental issues and one economic development.

Crises Can Emerge Anywhere

The need for a crisis communication plan increases exponentially for an organization expanding globally. Corporations must have plans to identify potential issues and a means to respond - globally or locally - to a crisis that could emerge anywhere in the world. Areas where issues are likely to arise and possibly become crises include the environment, contributions to political campaigns, labor conditions, human rights and corruption.

Beyond the business and communication efforts that must be tailored to every country where they do business, companies need to be sensitive to a complex mosaic of other factors: religious beliefs, social customs and political practices. Awareness applies both to their own employees operating in another country and to the larger societies where business is being conducted.

In the end, it may be language that spells success or failure. Clearly, language differences are one of the greatest communication challenges for a global company - both inside and outside the organization.

Allstate Insurance communicator Julie Bjorkman underscores the cultural land mines awaiting the unwary. "Our brand," she says, "is the 'hands,' and (we say) being in good hands is the only place to be. But in Germany if you have one hand out, it signifies begging; if you have two hands out, you're doubly begging. And I don't even want to get into what (the good hands brand) might mean in India."

Norm Leaper, ABC, is president of The Leaper Company, a San Francisco-based communication consultancy.
COPYRIGHT 1999 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Leaper, Norm
Publication:Communication World
Date:Apr 1, 1999
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