Monday, 25 January 2010

Global PR: does the PR paradigm work across cultures?

We had an interesting debate in the class on the issue, “Good PR is always context and culture specific. The idea of a global PR is anathema”. Both the teams had some strong points to stand for the motion and against the motion. The team for the motion basically emphasised the point that in order to develop effective communications plan, public relations practitioners need to identify and understand the local context and culture. The team against the motion highlighted that with so many consultancies becoming international, global public relations is the future. It is not easy to give one answer to the question, as our course leader, Pam Williams, said, the answer probably lies somewhere in between. The debate, however, provided a lot of food for thought for everybody in the class. So, I decided to do some research on the issue and this blog highlight my learning and findings.

Difference between global and international public relations

Are terms IPR and global PR synonymous or mean different things? In academic literature, both these terms have been used interchangeably but Tench and Yeomans refers global PR to the internalisation of the profession, which is being practised in more and more countries throughout the globe, while IPR refers to the planning and implementation of programmes and campaigns carried out abroad, involving two or more countries. In my opinion, this distinction by Szondi (2006) is valid because if we go by the dictionary meaning of international, it means between or among nations, whereas the term, global means, around the globe or involving the entire earth. So, global in terms of its literary meaning sounds more holistic and comprehensive. If this is the basic distinction then I think one can argue if international public relations is a part of global public relations?

Who drives global public relations?

Global public relations is driven by many factors like political, social, economic and technological etc. As Ralph Tench and Liz Yeomans mention in their book Exploring Public Relations, many non-governmental organisations, such as, Greenpeace, Red Cross, Save the Children or Amnesty International, cannot be associated with a particular country and they communicate with a variety of peoples and countries all over the globe. Not only multinational organisations but also countries and their governments frequently engage in international public relations to create a positive reputation of the particular country abroad or a receptive environment for achieving foreign or economic policy goals. I think technology has played a pivotal role in driving global public relations. The phrase, ‘the world is a global village’ by Marshall McLuhan very much holds existence in today’s world. The development of tools like internet and social media has provided public relations practitioners with the medium to reach audience across geographical borders.

Does international public relations exist at all?

The PR industry seems to be divided on the issue. Some practitioners think that there is no such thing as international public relations while others think that international public relations is the most rapidly growing segment of the profession. I personally think international public relations does exist and is growing at a significant rate. Alison Theaker in the Public Relations Handbook mentions that Wakefield (2001) reports that there are now 40,000 multinational entities, financial markets are converging and new technologies are facilitating communication. Most of the leading public relations consultancies like Weber Shandwick, Fleishman-Hillard, Edelman, Porter Novelli, and Lewis PR etc. are global public relations firms and practice international public relations. These international PR agencies have their networks in many different countries. They have local offices and hire local PR practitioners which give them more credibility. Thus, these multinational organisations adapt to the culture of the host country. According to Tench and Yeomans, public relations industry has been slow to adapt itself with the theories and models of their practices in the international context.

Are PR theories and concepts universally applicable?

Most of the theories and concepts in PR developed in USA and the UK, therefore, practitioners and scholars have been interested to find out if these theories and concepts are universally applicable. For example, Grunig’s two-way symmetrical model, one can argue if that is applicable universally. I think in a democratic country like India, it might be applicable but its application might be restricted in communist countries like China.

Culture and global PR

As societies become increasingly diverse, public relations practitioners face a greater challenge to speak to the needs of each market. I think in order to reach their target audience effectively, global public relations practitioners need to have a good understanding of local cultures. The Public Relations handbook mentions that Homogenous cultures are rare. Jandt (2004) states that 95 percent of the world’s countries are ethnically heterogeneous. This has a direct impact on public relations practitioners since the culture background of targeted publics can change which media channels practitioners should use.

What is culture?

Sriramesh and Vercic (2003:8) quote Tylor (1871), who defined culture as ‘that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, custom, any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society’. On the other hand, Hofstede defined culture as ‘collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one category of people from another.’

Can PR work across cultures?

I think PR can definitely work across cultures if consultancies ‘Think Global and Act Local’. In fact, in today’s information age, PR practitioners have no choice but to adapt themselves according to globalisation of PR. They need to be open and flexible in their approach in order to develop effective international PR strategies. There have been numerous examples where global public relations campaigns have been successful. For example, the best job in the world campaign. Tourism Queensland claims that the campaign generated more than $80m (£49m) of equivalent media advertising space (source: The Guardian). On the other hand there are some examples which didn’t work internationally like British Airways when it went global in 1996. In June 1997 the airline unveiled a new £60m corporate identity and £1m global advertising campaign with the slogan: ‘The world is closer than you think’. The new identity was based on 50 world images commissioned from ethnic artists around the world. BA’s plan to fly world images instead of the Union flag backfired. Eventually, the airline had to retreat and repaint its planes in 2001, bringing back the Union flag. Thus, public relations can work across cultures but PR practitioners need to keep in mind various factors before implementing international communication plans.

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References: Ralph Tench and Liz Yeomans, Exploring Public Relations, Chapter: International context of public relations
Alison Theaker, The Public Relations Handbook, Chapter: Coping with culture

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