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
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
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
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
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
When writing, the first step should always be to look at and integrate the
cross cultural particulars of the target audience.
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
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.
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.
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
is Director of Kwintessential,
a UK based cross cultural communications consultancy.
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