The Globalization of PR: Myth or Reality

Guest Article:
By Harris Diamond, CEO

Weber Shandwick

The question of whether the globalization of PR is a myth or reality is easily answered: it is definitely a reality. The key question is what kind of reality is it? And two further questions: what does it mean for us? And where is it headed?

Any concept of globalization that attempts to airbrush out the importance of local, national, or regional dynamics is not going to take us very far. It is no longer acceptable to rely on the watchwords, “Think Global, Act Local.” Perhaps closer to the mark is a line by Tip O’Neill, former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, who once said, “All politics is local.” In some important senses, all PR is local, too.

I will return to this theme later, but first let me discuss the idea of globalization itself. Just as the Depression, the Cold War, the Space Age, or the Roaring 20’s are used to describe different historical periods, the Era of Globalization encapsulates the political, economic and cultural atmosphere of today.

Yet, as one or two academics have pointed out, globalization is not a new concept. While the term, “globalization,” was coined only in the1980’s, the concept originated much earlier than that.

Consider for a moment that the Roman Empire once extended from Scotland in the north to Tunisia and Egypt in the south and from Portugal in the west to Turkey in the east. Within that vast region, there was one currency, one banking system, one legal system, one trading system, and one official language for matters of state and commerce. No wonder, then, that there were revolts and street riots protesting the imposition of Roman rule on local life. This isn’t much different from a meeting of the World Trade Organization today.

In considering the reality of global PR, we should remember that it is complex, not simple. The tension and balance between the power of international and the power of local is an old theme. One lesson is clear: global and local always coexist and have always been intertwined. History shows that one does not necessarily lead to the demise of the other. Globalization is complex and multilayered and it is perilous to forget that.

If the 19th and the first half of the 20th century were dominated — sometimes tragically — by nation states, the last 50 years have seen the emergence of a new global player: the multinational organization, or as some experts prefer to say more accurately and neutrally: “the transnational organization.”

Transnationals may be based within a particular country and carry strong cultural associations from that home country. Coca-Cola, for example, has long been regarded as American as apple pie. The historic brand essence of Mercedes or Peugeot was quintessentially German or French. But increasingly, the country of origin is becoming less central to the DNA of these organizations. They think and act internationally; they have intellectual property and operations around the world; and their culture becomes global, not national or local.

People often assume that transnationals are only multinational businesses, such as Coca-Cola, Microsoft, IBM, Nokia, or Sony. However, one of the key points about understanding the globalization of PR is that we aren’t just referring to businesses, but to many other types of global players, as well.

Transnationals may be political, such as the European Commission, UNICEF or the World Health Organization. They may be NGOs, such as Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth. They may be economic, such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, and they may be cultural, such as CNN, BBC World and Al Jazeera. These disparate organizations all demonstrate the willingness and ability to think and act on a global or regional basis, rather than on just a national basis.

The first step in understanding the reality of the globalization of PR is that some of the key players now are no longer capable of being understood within the confines of traditional national boundaries. It’s not just that they act internationally; they act supranationally. Their psychology, their thinking and even their cultures are becoming truly global.

The term globalization most simply refers to the growing interdependence and interconnectedness of the world — politically, militarily, economically, or technologically. Whether people view globalization as a liberating force for economic prosperity and world peace, or whether they fear it as a catastrophic form of tyranny and the nemesis of advanced capitalism, both supporters and opponents agree that globalization rests on our interconnectedness and interdependence. That’s true whether the issue is trade barriers, pornography on the Internet, climate change, or the spread of avian flu. Like it or not, we have never understood so keenly as now that we all inhabit the same planet.

Yet, there is a second idea that is often mistakenly linked to interconnectedness — an idea that is far more problematic for those of us facing the challenges of the globalization of PR.

It is the idea that globalization means not just international connectedness, but, also international homogenization. This notion holds that globalization inevitably moves toward uniformity in consumer behaviors, tastes, cultures and personalities. According to this view, whether we live in Malaysia or New York, Belgium or Bolivia, we all will eventually act in the same way, consume the same products, and have the same cultural reference points. Local differences will diminish over time as an inevitable result of globalization.

Understandably, this argument worries many people. Take the night skyline of many a major world city on any continent and see the familiar neon signs for Kodak, Panasonic or Foster’s. It does seem to indicate a world that looks increasingly alike.

It is also true that nearly the world over people can be seen drinking a Coke, taking their kids to McDonald’s, using Microsoft Windows, or clutching a Siemens cellphone. Does that mean that people around the world are all becoming the same? Does it mean that national, regional and local differences are slowly melding into a uniform, global consumer marketplace? Far from it.

The strongest evidence that globalization does not mean bland uniformity comes from the many corporations whose products and services penetrate scores of countries. These companies need to make their brands relevant in ways that are faithful to the core attributes of the brand, yet flexible enough to accommodate diverse trading patterns, differing consumer tastes and behavior, and a variety of businesses, media and political cultures. Take the work that we do for Siemens and MasterCard, representing both businesses in dozens of diverse markets. Of course, we help these clients drive a central global plan, based on core brand values. But the effectiveness of these programs comes from the huge creativity and intellectual property residing around the world.

The real challenge for PR is to help organizations bridge that which is global and that which is local. Unfortunately, there is no magic template for doing this. What there is, instead, is a steadily growing body of wisdom that comes from doing it, day in and day out, in numerous markets around the world.

I mentioned at the start of this article that old watchwords like ‘”Think Global, Act Local” are no longer relevant. With very few exceptions global campaigns that are designed, executed and controlled centrally have little place in today’s global PR market. “Think Global, Act Local” was an attempt to get beyond complete centralization by suggesting that execution, at least, needed to take place locally. But it still implied that corporate headquarters could establish a strategy that would resonate around the world as long as it had a little local interpretation in the execution phase.

Today, global campaigns do not come from some NASA-like Mission Control center. Instead they originate from any corner of the world. And once originated, they have to find differing expressions to be effective in different markets.

Our business is more and more about the quality of our ideas — strategic and creative ideas. By their nature, ideas can come from anywhere — especially if we are to avoid the charge of cultural imperialism. A model that has strategy and creativity at the center and execution at the local end is no longer adequate. Free-traveling, free-thinking ideas are the new lifeblood of global PR.

This brings me to my final point. We simplify people at our own risk. As a consumer, myself, I only have to look inside my own head to know that I have interests and allegiances that are global, national, and local. I am influenced by the ethnic and religious origins of my ancestors, by my family, and by people who share my intellectual interests. Much as I would love to believe I am especially complex, I think most of you would be the same. If we can hold different notions of “global” and “local” in our heads and live life anyway, then it is incumbent upon global PR programs to do the same. It may not be as simple, but it’s much more interesting.

And that’s great news for PR.

About the Author
Harris Diamond is Chief Executive Officer of Weber Shandwick, one of the world’s leading public relations firm. Weber Shandwick offers a full spectrum of communications services – corporate consulting, public relations, investor/financial relations, marketing communications, public affairs, government relations, attitudinal research and advocacy advertising. PRWeek has selected Mr. Diamond as “PR Professional of the Year, 2000” and one of the “100 most influential PR people in the 20th century.”

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