Vince Lombardi, the famous football coach for the Green Bay Packers, had a saying, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
So it’s been for international companies this year as the pandemic and a volatile political climate force executives to navigate a communications environment unlike any in history.
One topic that’s worth putting thought into is what foreign companies – and Chinese companies in particular – should consider when it comes to international communications.
I asked my colleague and friend, Burghardt Tenderich, who teaches at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, to join me in addressing this issue. I’ve captured an overview of topics and the counsel offered which often has relevance to any company striving to build its public profile in multiple geographies.
Approach media relations regionally
The way brands engage with journalists differs greatly around the world, so it’s critical to understand the “rules” before picking up the phone or sending a pitch lest you end up as Exhibit A on the journalist’s Twitter feed.
For example, the relationship between PR professionals and journalists tends to be deeper in China and the UK. It’s not uncommon for the two to meet over coffee or a meal (in a non-pandemic world, of course). However, hop to Germany or the Netherlands, the relationship is more transactional and focused on the exchange of information. As Burghardt emphasized, you can’t look at Europe as one homogenous market as you do Asia.
I think it’s fair to say that relationship-building with journalists in the U.S. is a mix of the two. American media also lean heavily on the transactional side, but there is opportunity to establish a relationship if you can cross from pitching a relevant client story to serving as an industry resource.
Tailor your company’s messaging like a Brioni suit
Foreign and Chinese companies hoping to find success in the U.S. by hitting the market with a new, flashy approach need to take a step back and tailor the messaging to “feel” like an American company to be effective.
As Burghardt, who has lived in both Europe and the U.S., explained, BMW is a perfect example of customizing company messaging to fit the market. Here in the U.S., we know BMW as “The ultimate driving machine.” The company knew this messaging would resonate with the local car enthusiasts. However, this slogan isn’t present in any marketing in their home country of Germany.
For many companies, this calls for regional support and equally important for HQ to trust their counterparts and relinquish their tight grip on overseas operations in order to foster the kind of independence needed to thrive in a new and different market.
Chinese companies as well as other Asian companies have been sending their senior or fast-track executives to the U.S. for defined assignments for some time. This has allowed the executive to gain hands-on experience in the largest market in the world. When the individual moves back to the HQ, he or she is much better equipped to take on an international role. I think Asian companies would benefit by applying the same concept to senior communication professionals. Even one year working from a U.S. perch would be a game changer.
Speaking from my own experience, when my family and I moved overseas so I could work out of our UK office for 18 months, it changed my mentality in a way that still helps me today. In short, the world looks different when viewed from a location other than the HQ.
BTW, a Brioni suite will typically set you back $10,000 plus. And, no, I don’t have any Brioni suits hanging in my closet.
Supply and demand theory, just for economists
When developing content earmarked for journalists, PR professionals should view the journalist as their customer — What are they most interested in? What have they been covering the most? Is there an area where your client can fill a gap?
Framing this issue by supply-and-demand economic theory offers a revealing view. I’ve plotted journalistic demand against the five core types of content that PR depends on to drive media coverage:
- Public domain news
- Non-public domain news
- Industry features
- Company features
- Bylined articles
In going through this exercise, the disconnect in the supply-and-demand equations lands squarely on public domain news. News announcements constitute the greatest percentage of PR supply even though there’s little demand from journalists.
CSR is no longer a “nice to have”
Millennials and Gen Z increasingly put a premium on companies — whether it involves a purchase or potential employment — that stands for something more that turning the crank to make money. This isn’t an American issue or a Chinese issue. We’re seeing this way of thinking in the younger demographic play out across the world.
Along this line, employees are starting to place pressure on senior leadership to rethink the way their company acts as a partner in the community and broader industries they are present in, as well as the issues most important to them, such as equality, climate change and transparency.
Back in August 2019, the Business Round Table, an organization consisting of the largest corporations in the U.S., issued a statement on the mission of business which previously focused on serving shareholders. Instead, these executives recast theirs to include investing in employees, protecting the environment and dealing ethically with their suppliers.
If anything, the pandemic has only accelerated this dynamic and not just for the goliaths, but all companies. Once the world returns to its axis — I’m guessing sometime in the second half of 2021 after the vaccine is widely distributed — progressive companies will be striving to be a “force of good” and looking to the communications function to build this into their public profiles.
How will a Biden White House impact Chinese companies and their communications in the U.S.?
The mere fact that a Biden White House will be professional — what a concept? — and to a large extent predictable is a net positive compared to the current administration. With that said, I don’t think we’re going to see dramatic changes in China policy, at least during the first year when so much of the new administration’s energy will be focused on the pandemic and preventing the economy from cratering.
Regarding the latter, Chinese companies and all foreign companies for that matter would be well-served to include a narrative in their communications that talks to contributing to the U.S. market as opposed to merely selling goods. And yes, the same holds true for American companies in China and other international markets.
I for one am (so) looking forward to 2021. More than telling stories, there’s an opportunity for communications professionals to serve as the conscience for their respective companies/clients, ensuring that decisions and actions align with the aspiration of being a good citizen in society.