A few weeks ago I was participating on a debate about global PR for the course Theories and Issues in Public Relations @ Westminster University.
The class and the discussion were structured on the following questions and statement:
- Global PR: does the PR paradigm work across cultures?
- How does an International PR practitioner navigate difference?
- “Good PR is always context and culture specific. The idea of a global PR is anathema”
In the debate, I had to challenge the point that global PR is anathema.
At first, I thought it wouldn’t be easy to find a logical argument to support the fact that global PR exists and it is actuated nowadays with successful results. After a few researches, I realized that it could be possible to organize a discourse against the statement by specifying the meaning of global PR and by giving a few examples to support my thought.
First of all, what does global PR mean? If we don’t clarify it immediately we risk losing the track of the argument. Let’s use the definition given by Wilcox: “International PR is defined as the planned and organized effort of a company, institution, or government to establish mutually beneficial relations with the publics of other nations”.
In this context, International Public Relations must be seen as a managerial, rather than merely technical, practice. The nitty-gritty of this practice lies in the communication of PR strategies elaborated at headquarters’ level with the PR professionals who work in the foreign countries. This is where cultural differences may be identified and discussed to better develop targeted communication messages.
Actually, the profession of global PR started long time ago. We can think about in-house comms departments of international organisations such as the Red Cross (1863), the United Nations (1945), or Amnesty International (1965). On the other hand, global PR has been the main activity for western multinational corporations since Mid-20th century, helped in many cases by international PR consultancies such as Burson-Marstellar, Edelman, Hill & Knowlton, and Weber Shandwick.
Sometimes, the quality of being a multicultural and multi-skilled communicator doesn’t help in a global PR context due to many different variables. Many academics, have identified 5 main ‘environmental variables’ that a communicator must bear in mind when crafting communication strategies in foreign countries. A PR manager has to draft a situational analysis by identifying the political, economic, cultural and media systems, and the degree of activism of the country. Without doing it, the risk of communication and business failures is high.
Google China issue is an interesting example of global PR at corporate level! In these days, we are participating at the ‘defeat’ of the most popular American search engine that entered the Chinese market in 2006. Google China started a few years ago in order to provide a better information service to Chinese people who were experiencing bad performances from Google.com website due to the government’s filtering policy – better known as the “Great Firewall”.
Google’s decision to expand its business in the Asian country was in conflict with its ethical corporate principle: “don’t be evil”. However, with the statement “Testimony: The Internet in China” posted on the official Google’s blog, the American company explained how Google China would increase the overall access to information for Chinese Internet users. At that time and today, there is a lot of criticism around Google’s decisions to enter and to leave China.
From PR Week, Ogilvy & Mather global CEO Miles Young, and Wolf Group Asia CEO David Wolf clearly state that Google’s motto will always create troubles in the way it clashes with the company’s will to become a Multinational Corporation. Wahida Ashiq, head of the London comms agency specialising in Chinese brands 931/2, believes that Google’s choice to leave China would be a second mistake. In fact, Google may risk to further damage its brand reputation “by appearing naive to have thought it could take on the Party”, after having compromised its brand integrity to enter in that market.
An even more harsh critic comes from the pages of USA Today. The front is made by the founder and managing director of the China Market Research Group, Shaun Rein and by Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer. Both agree on the fact that more Western competitors would provide more freedom to the Chinese people, and it will give “the chance to these companies to seat at the table to help push for reform”. Ballmer views on the possibility for Microsoft to leave China: “I don’t understand how that helps us, and I don’t understand how that helps China.”
Honestly, I have an opinion on the reason why Microsoft doesn’t want to leave China: profits! Nothing less, nothing more. Their principles are built on making money, not on giving freedom to people. The freedom of Chinese people can’t come from Western businesses trying to make money out of China. Is it right to have big businesses seating at the table with Chinese politicians to discuss about the freedom of a country, or is it the duty of Chinese citizens to claim for their rights?
I sympathize for Google. Maybe they will end the Chinese experience and they will gain the title of the most naïve company in the 21st century. They thought they could change something, but they found a really though environment. However, leaving a blooming market to follow its principle instead of the profit will strengthen Google’s reputation among stakeholders outside China. Google’s retreat will leave an empty space in China market; but most of all it will generate a sense of ‘loneliness’ among Chinese Google’s users.
The importance of the decision of Google is in the way it will strengthen the feelings of Chinese people to claim the end of a state of censorship. Someone may not agree with me, but I believe in the power of a brand and in the loyalty of its costumers. I see Google’s choice far more productive in the long run for the freedom of China than the one of Microsoft to wait and hope to gain the privilege to seat at a table with Chinese politicians.