The Challenges of International Relations in an Internet World
The Internet has made borders disappear and time has become irrelevant.
It is now very possible to carry out your public relations program 24x7. In the space of an hour you can chat with a technical editor in Essex, England; respond to a newspaper reporter in Quebec; set up an interview in San Francisco; coordinate a product review in Melbourne, Australia; coordinate a client’s trip from Osaka, Japan; and provide an industry analyst in Bombay, India the data he had requested.
At the same time it is possible for people here and abroad to reach out against your organization in the same manner…round the clock, round the calendar. Not listening doesn’t make the situation disappear.
Even after more than 10 years of working with Internet related firms; we are continually amazed at the technology’s power, reach and potential. Similarly we are amazed at how easily we abuse it.
Just as people can effortlessly reach and communicate with partners around the globe, they often believe public relations activities should be just as seamless. At the other end of the spectrum – and more prevalent – is when management decides to announce a product. Since it is a U.S.-only announcement, management feels public relations people don’t have to worry about the ROW (rest of world) and the message will magically stop at our borders. There is no need to inform or brief managers and PR people in other areas of the world so an opportunity is lost and the local people are once again isolated.
Small World, Big World
The famed small world ride at Disneyland gives you a real understanding of the interdependence of people. The Internet has helped shrink the world even more and bring countries, companies and individuals closer together. However, just as the Disney ride points out the differences, it is important for public relations people to understand and address these differences.
While English is the official language of the Internet it doesn’t mean that English is the only language of the Internet. One of the largest growing on-line communities is the Spanish speaking population. There are hundreds of other national language sites that serve a specific community…regardless of where they live. In addition, people in other countries deserve the respect of being presented information in their native language.
While an estimated 40+% of the U.S. population is connected, this is far from the case for the rest of the world (ROW). Outside the U.S. the have-nots far outnumber the haves.
American companies often ignore country borders with their messages and product/service offerings. For example, they often approach Europe as one entity. While the EU (European Union) has made significant strides in developing a common monetary exchange; the 15-plus countries, their businesses and their people are still quite individual. By the same token the Pacific Basin is not one Asia but dozens of individual countries with their own channels of distribution, business and political policies and procedures as well as written and implied guidelines which have to be followed.
B2C and B2B firms were the first to come to the cold realization that the Internet did not produce a single global sandbox in which they could play. Caught up by the frenzy and world power view, PR people too frequently fail to acknowledge the real world obstacles that stand between the realities of business and worldwide corporate and product success.
At the same time, public relations people fail to understand that while we have an untapped reservoir of Internet capacity in the U.S. the physical infrastructure elsewhere is woefully lacking. Industry estimates are that we have sufficient dark fiber – fiber that is not being used – in the ground to handle a 6x increase in Internet traffic while most countries can only handle a fraction of our Internet traffic. For a reality check on the communications environments visit www.internetweather.com, www.ciada.org/toos, www.cybergeography.org, www.cs.bell-labs.com/who/ches/map/index.html or a number of university sites that have mapped cyberspace.
Suddenly you can understand that in the world of the Internet there is a large vacuum outside of this country’s borders. Not only is there far less infrastructure outside the U.S., the speed of connection is even worse.
Recall the last time someone sent you a series of photo attachments or a presentation while you were on the road and you’ll understand why editors, reporters and analysts outside the U.S. are irate with the attach-and-send antics of publicists. And that’s on a good day. We get irritated with the growing barrage of large attachments we receive across our DSL connection. We can’t imagine the frustration of only have a 14.4 or worse connection.
Slow, Restricted Adoption
In many countries, Internet adoption has been slow because of the low volume of PC ownership, high telecommunications cost and inferior Internet infrastructure. In other countries there is active resistance to the Internet.
For example France Telecom has been delivering online services to nearly 10 million French households for years through their Minitel terminals. Because they receive a payment for every Minitel transaction there is very little incentive for France Telecom to accelerate Internet adoption. At the same time, messages directed at French citizens must by law be in French.
In many Middle Eastern countries religious leaders have been very effective in blocking citizens’ access to certain web locations.
At the same time Europeans and Asians have quickly moved past physical Internet connectivity. These nations have been working hard to leapfrog an entire generation of Internet infrastructure to position themselves for the online future. Wireless and Web enabled devices like cell phones and palmtops are much more prevalent than they are in the U.S.
The services and devices require a different level of communications.
Single paragraph news summaries are replacing three page news releases that do nothing more than clog the digital pipeline. When international editors, reporters or analysts want or need more detailed information they can request it or download the details from a robust on-line company press information center. Not too surprising is the fact that U.S. media personnel also find this approach preferable to receiving volumes of email attachments which – like their paper counterparts – are thrown in the trash without being opened.
Short interactive conversations replace pages of detailed analysis and justification. If the interchange can’t fit comfortably on a palmtop or cell phone screen it is often ignored.
In today’s Internet-based co-opetive environment companies have to have a global public relations plan and strategy but it has to be implemented locally. In the U.S. there are few differences between states, counties and cities and the culture is fairly homogeneous. Abroad there are major differences from country to country, region to region and city to city.
The Importance of Listening
A major key to a firm’s global public relations success is simply to listen.
If the company has strategic alliances with firms in various countries PR people need to communicate with them regularly. If there are local company offices, interactive working sessions have to be conducted on a regular basis. If there is a local PR team then local recommendations and modifications have to be molded into the programs to ensure their success.
Listen to what local officials and professionals can tell you about the media in their area, the competition, the customers and the prospects. Find out what works and what doesn’t. Get inputs on key and secondary media, analyst and market targets.
Act on that information. Incorporate it into the global and local programs. Measure and evaluate the results. Fine-tune the programs to take advantage of new opportunities.
The Internet has helped us cross borders, breakdown barriers and open doors in an interdependent world. Public relations activities that come strictly from the home-office are doomed to failure in today’s global marketplace. The world has become too complex.
While the world is becoming a smaller place, it is public relations corporate responsibility to listen to, acknowledge and take into consideration the local potential and ramifications of PR strategies. When public relations tactics are tailored locally they produce a more consistent, more productive and more successful global communications program.