We expanded overseas and planted our flag in Singapore in 1996.
Today, with nine offices across Europe, Asia and the U.S., we’ve literally worked with hundreds of executives on the international PR front.
Taking from these experiences – and borrowing from David Letterman – we’ve packaged our top-ten list on why companies fail at international PR:
No. 1: “Americanitis”
Some U.S. executives think that having a high profile in the domestic market guarantees a hero’s welcome when they land on foreign shores. After all, why shouldn’t the image they’ve spent years building in the U.S. magically cross the Atlantic and Pacific, conform to local societies, adapt to local market nuances and reach out to their targeted constituencies? Unfortunately, such an attitude leads to thinking that the same PR tactics and strategies that work so well in the U.S. can be thrown over the fence to be used in other countries.
No. 2: Lack of Resources and/or Budget
There’s a tendency to think that if the U.S. PR program runs $540K per year and the company’s U.S. revenue constitutes 60 percent of worldwide sales, then … if the foreign region accounts for 10 percent of the company’s revenue, the PR program for the year in the foreign region should be $90K, covering five or so major markets. It’s just not possible. A more effective approach involves companies examining their business objectives and allocating PR budget based on supporting those business objectives. There’s no single funding formula for success.
No. 3: Spread Resources Too Thin
Related to the above, companies often find they don’t have resources and/or budget to effectively target all the markets in a given region. For example, a company might be focusing on the UK, Germany, France and Italy, but the PR budget is only $200K for all of Europe. Instead of doing a good job in two of the markets, they spread their resources too thinly across the four target countries and don’t move the needle anywhere.
No. 4: Corporate HQ Control
Often, the funding for a PR program overseas comes out of the U.S. coffers. It stands to reason that the U.S. PR executive would want some involvement in the international PR activities and how the money is spent. Makes sense. But when the corporate HQ exercises strict control and approval over every overseas action, an incredible bureaucracy takes hold that handicaps the international PR effort. Just the simple task of approving a news release can turn into a nightmarish saga as inputs ping-pong between HQ and the country office, exhausting everyone’s time.
No. 5: Inability to Localize Content
Localizing content goes far beyond the translation of materials. Look at the daily newspapers from Japan, the U.S. and Germany on any given day. The headlines will be different. Naturally, the business issues vary from country to country. Yet most companies aren’t willing to put in the time to localize the storytelling for each target country. The more effort a company puts into shaping the content to the specific characteristics of a particular market, the stronger the story becomes for the targeted audience.
No. 6: Treat Translation of Press Materials as an Administrative Task
A PR activity’s efforts can go down the drain if the translation of the press materials is not handled accurately. Years ago, we had a client situation in Korea in which the Korean word for merger was used instead of the Korean word for partnership. The client company was traded on NASDAQ, and all hell broke loose when the release went out incorrectly announcing a merger with a Korean company.
No. 7: Unrealistic Expectations
An American company enjoys a high profile and substantial market share in the U.S., so it automatically expects the same type of profile in a foreign market. The reality is that the media doesn’t know the company or knows very little. Like any “new kid on the block,” the company needs to build its reputation through hard work and establishing new relationships.
No. 8: Conducting International PR Long Distance
Some companies consider flinging their news releases into foreign countries via news release distribution services as a form of international PR. Others purchase directories that list the local media – and in some cases, the names of publications’ reporters – in a given country. But the power of PR comes from the relationships with the local influencers, government officials and media as well as understanding the nuances of the local market. This can only be achieved with local feet on the street.
No. 9: Lack of Spokespeople
Often, companies operate what amounts to a sales office in an overseas market. The top executive in such an office focuses on sales. Deploying this person as a company spokesperson can be a challenge, since he or she is rewarded based on the quarter’s sales results, not building a long-term image. And leveraging executives from outside a given country often means sacrificing local market knowledge (not to mention the language issue).
No. 10: No Actions Behind the Words
“We’re committed to the local market.” Every company targeting a foreign market says these words, but some don’t take actions to support the statement. This is a bigger issue than PR. Companies should be looking for ways to become an asset to the local community and local economy. Obviously, it’s easier to build an image for a company that takes these steps. Furthermore, it doesn’t have to require a large investment in money and time. Instead, it’s more a symbol of respect for the local market.
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Well organized and sharp description of mistakes some global companies easily make in the non-American market. Enjoy reading it a lot! Thanks.
Thanks for the feedback.
No doubt, you’ve seen some of these mistakes first hand.
Lou, thanks for this excellent post. I saw all of this first-hand when I worked in Japan years ago for a Japanese PR agency that counted many American companies among its clients.
These days, however, I work closely with many foreign companies in the U.S. market, and every reason you gave for why American companies fail with their overseas PR applies equally to non-American companies in the United States. To give an example, the cost of PR in Switzerland or Japan or Chile bears no relationship to the cost in the U.S. This is a big country both geographically and in terms of diversity. After quoting a monthly base fee for PR to a European company a few years back, the communications director from the Swiss home office told us that our fee was outrageous – she said she had never spent more than $2,000 per month on PR in any European country!
That’s great point though nationalistic-itis doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.
BTW, I’m familiar with Cosmo. Saw Kumi Sato on CNN years ago. Sounds like the perfect foundation for what you do now.