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Public Relations Across Cultures
Building international communication bridges.
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by Neil Payne
Kwintessential

Neil PayneThe Public Relations (PR) industry is responsible for creating and maintaining relationships between clients and customers. Through areas such as brand management, advertising, media relations and crisis management, PR practitioners seek to foster interest, trust and belief in a product or company.

PR practitioners are aware of how best to carry this out when dealing within their own nations and cultures, however, when dealing with a foreign audience it is critical that cross cultural differences are recognised.

By way of illustrating the impact cross cultural awareness can have on the success or failure of a PR campaign a brief example can be cited:

Pepsodent tried to sell its toothpaste in Southeast Asia by emphasizing that it "whitens your teeth." They found out that the local natives chew betel nuts to blacken their teeth because they found it attractive. Had the PR company behind this campaign analysed the cross cultural issues related to Pepsodent's product, the failure of this PR campaign could have been avoided.

Cross cultural differences can make or break a PR campaign. It is therefore crucial that PR practitioners dealing with PR campaigns that incorporate a cross cultural element analyse likely cross cultural differences. A few key areas shall be highlighted in order to help PR practitioners begin to consider how culture may affect future projects.

Language and Culture

In order for a PR campaign to be successful abroad, an appreciation of the target language and its cultural nuances is necessary. The PR and advertising industries are littered with examples of poor translations and a lack of cross cultural understanding leading to PR failure. For example, when Ford launched the 'Pinto' in Brazil they were puzzled as to why sales were dead. Fortunately they found out that Brazilians did not want to be seen driving a car meaning 'small male genitals' and promptly changed the name.

Translation of documents, slogans and literature must be checked and double checked for meanings and cross cultural nuances. This should not only take place between languages but also within languages. Even in English there are cross cultural differences in meanings. For example, the airline UAL headlined an article about Paul Hogan, star of Crocodile Dundee, with, "Paul Hogan Camps it up" which unfortunately in the UK and Australia is slang for "flaunting homosexuality".

The Spoken Word

Areas where the spoken word is used in PR, such as press conferences or interviews, should be prepared for within a cross cultural framework. In short, speaking styles and the content used differs across cultures.

British and American communication styles are described as 'explicit', meaning messages are conveyed solely through words. Correlating background information is deemed necessary and divulged, ambiguity is avoided and spoken words have literal meaning. In many other cultures, communication is 'implicit'. The message listeners are likely to interpret is based on factors such as who is speaking, the context and non-verbal cues. Spoken words do not fully convey the whole story as listeners are expected to read between the lines.

With relation to content, speakers must be aware of the cross cultural differences in humour, metaphors, aphorisms and anecdotes. In addition, references to topics such as politics and/or religion can be a very sensitive issue in other cultures.

When the spoken word is used the cross cultural distinctions of the target culture must be incorporated in order to help the speaker appeal to and identify with the audience.

The Written Word

Press releases, features and copywriting all require a certain amount of cross cultural sensitivity when being applied abroad. Journalistic traditions, writing styles, news worthiness, delivery systems and whether a 'free press' exists are all areas that will affect how the written word is tailored.

In addition, the most important point, from a cross cultural perspective, is how to write in a way that engages the readers in that society or culture. Some cultures may prefer colourful and inspirational writing, others factual and objective. Some may be motivated by language that incorporates a religious or moral tone, others by a money-orientated or materialistic one.

When writing, the first step should always be to look at and integrate the cross cultural particulars of the target audience.

Communication Channels

PR practitioners employ many different communication channels when trying to circulate information relating to their campaign. The main channels of communication in the UK or America are the radio, the press, TV, internet and public spaces. However, these channels may not always be applicable abroad.

In many countries the radio, TV or newspapers may not be the primary source of information. Literacy rates may be poor and/or radios may be expensive. In Africa, only 1.4% of the population have access to the internet. Even where such channels of communication do exist, such as TV, some methods used by PR practitioners, namely guerrilla marketing, would be interpreted differently in foreign countries. For example, interrupting live TV may be laughed at in the UK but in other countries it would be seen as irresponsible and rebellious.

The usual channels of communication in some countries would simply have no effect in terms of PR. In such countries, local alternatives need to be sought such as religious leaders, tribal chiefs, school teachers or NGO's. Information coming from such figures will not only reach the audience but be perceived as more credible than if it were from foreigners.

PR Materials

The use of publicity materials in PR campaigns such as logos, slogans, pictures, colours and designs must all be cross culturally examined. Pictures of seemingly innocuous things in one culture could mean something different in another. For example, a company advertised eyeglasses in Thailand by featuring a variety of cute animals wearing glasses. The ad failed as animals are considered to be a low form of life in Thailand and no self respecting Thai would wear anything worn by animals. Similarly, logos or symbols are culturally sensitive. A soft drink was introduced into Arab countries with an attractive label that had a six-pointed star on it. The Arabs interpreted this as pro-Israeli and refused to buy it.

Conclusion

The above cited areas are but a few of those that require decent cross cultural assessment by PR practitioners if they wish their international and cross cultural campaigns to succeed. The aim of implementing a cross cultural analysis in PR is to build campaigns that target the audience as best as possible, meaning appealing to their world view while avoiding offense.


Neil Payne is Director of Kwintessential, 
a UK based cross cultural communications consultancy.
http://www.kwintessential.co.uk





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