There was a time when being able to claim that your city offered an international airport was a big deal. The ability to accommodate international flights, with customs and immigration facilities, bestowed a cache of cosmopolitan worldliness on the community. With globalization of the economy, however, international airports became a requirement for any town that expected to meet the demands of the new economic order. Today, in fact, if Wikipedia is credible on the topic, the United States is populated with 158 of these prestigious airports.
Similarly, there was a time when communicators—journalists, public relations practitioners, marketers and others with a message to proclaim—could afford to focus only on their local geography. They could thrive by routing their communications to their town, their state, perhaps their region or even the nation. Today, however, communicators—like airports—are discovering they must extend their reach globally if they expect to survive and grow in their jobs.
While an airport may go global simply by adding some flights and customs personnel, a communicator in the United States may need to undergo a personality transplant and a significant re-education program to be effective internationally. Every job and every target audience around the globe will present distinctive challenges—surprising customs, unintentionally embarrassing misuse of idioms, totally misguided audience selection, so each of us needs to carefully study the nations and populations to which we are aiming our articles, media materials and speeches.
As a guide for beginning the process, here are six considerations that you should assimilate before applying your brain to your international keyboard:
- Understand cultural differences. How will other cultures interpret your choice of words? How does your target audience perceive the roles of women, religious minorities or the military? Is enclosing your business card with a letter considered offensive?
- Consider language differences. Are you offering a version of your communications in the target audience’s language? How does your communication read if the audience uses Google to translate your English version? What idioms that you may commonly use could cause consternation to someone in a different culture, or what happens when you translate a foreign idiom literally?
- Factor in schedule differences. Remember that releasing an urgent communication at 1:00 p.m. in San Francisco means that it is being received at 8:00 a.m. the next day in Sydney. Planning a major event aimed at a business audience in Europe or South America can yield disappointing results if it falls in one of their most popular four-to-eight-week vacation periods.
- Learn the laws. What you may write freely in America without a second thought (e.g., criticism of a government action) could land you in prison in other countries. Even a simple action like chewing gum at a news conference can get you hauled out of the room by law enforcement.
- Learn how media work. The way media are controlled and operate in the Middle East bears no resemblance to European standards. And while paparazzi thrive in London, they may wilt across the channel in Paris.
- Learn history. When writing about Europe, it is as important to understand the impact of World Wars I and II on nations there as it is to understand the impact of the Civil War and the Vietnam War on American attitudes. History shapes biases and preferences, traditions and family values, heroes and villains in ways that can impact communications for centuries.
As you move toward an international frame of mind, keep that mind open to the backgrounds of those about whom you write and to the conventions that may bind them together but separate them from your own experience.
— Steve Friedman is the director of marketing communications at Airfoil Public Relations, a high tech PR agency with offices in Detroit and Silicon Valley.