Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of the SPEAK|pr Podcast
International public relations and cultural differences
One of the valuable recurring themes about international public relations is that it’s not just about the international nature; it’s also about communicating to different audience types. One of the main points that come to mind are the cultural sensitivities. There countries are a mix of religions: Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, so one has to be aware of cultural sensitivities around certain gestures such as shaking hands. Many years ago in Singapore, the relationship between men and women was very different as well as between foreigners or "farang" and locals. Things have changed significantly, but the need to respect the local cultures, the local dialect, and the local religious mores is still very much in play. The same can be said when working in the Middle East, having to consider halal products which meant that these were consumed by Muslim followers.
A second theme is the languages and the variations between languages. Singapore is one country that had decided after the race riots of the 1960s to make English as a national language under Lee Kuan Yew. India is an interesting case, because in the Indian market, when it comes to things like banking, they adopt English, but when it comes to public relations and other activities, there are 121 recognized languages and 1,500 different dialects, Hindi being the main one with over 500 million speakers. So, for international press relations, one would need to have regional and local teams, not just for the practicalities but for the translation into the different dialects.
One of the nicest ways perhaps of looking at the difference in international variations is on Mother’s Day and holidays. Companies often use holidays as platforms for activities. Mother’s Day actually doesn’t happen on the same day around the world at all. Mother’s Day in Norway is celebrated on the second Sunday of February. In Libya, it’s March the 21st. In the UK, it’s the fourth Sunday of Lent, which means that it changes every year, which is a great excuse for getting it wrong. Indonesian Mother’s Day is on the 22nd of December, so each country has got its own Mother’s Day.
When launching public relations campaigns, whether in one’s own markets or globally with the help of technology, one language does not necessarily fit all. Certainly, that applies to humor as well, but also possibly to anything with a religious implication, etc. Logistics has become global, allowing people to purchase products from practically anywhere on the world Amazon, and there is also global sourcing which is both an opportunity but also a challenge as business owners to be consistent globally or nationally and to respect local variations. Finally, one thing to note is that in the West, politicians have grey hair implying age and wisdom. In Asia, politicians dye their hair so that they look young, and this is a classic example of how two different cultures approach the same class of people but with different values.
Chinese media as told by an insider
EASTWEST PR’s correspondent in China, Charles Young, share his insights on the Chinese media scene. First, Charles says that media is very important `in China, and there are two types of media: traditional and social media. Some consider traditional media to be somewhat out of fashion, but Charles still considers it to be an important news resource. Examples of this type of media are TV, brokers, newspapers, and magazines. Basically, these are TV- or paper-based media. Within about 8-10 years of development, the popularity of social media in China has been growing and it continues to grow. According to the 45th Statistical Report on Internet Development in China released by China Internet Network Information Center or CNNIC, in March 2020, the number of Chinese internet users has reached 940 million with an internet penetration rate of 64.5%, and the number of mobile internet users has reached almost 900 million with the proportion of internet users reaching 99.3%. Because of this, companies in China are maximising their use of social media to get themselves noticed, and there are categories on how to go about that: subscription accounts, service accounts, enterprise accounts, and mini-programs. Also, any company hoping to enter the Chinese market must have an official account with verification.
WeChat is one of the main platforms. It serves many functions, and it is often considered the first step to getting on social media in China. Next is a microblog profile from CNET. It’s similar to Twitter, which they don’t have in China. A microblog serves as a window into the company and a search engine. Since Google is unavailable in China, they have Baidu, 360, and Sogou, the top three search engines in China on which advertising, search engine management (such as keyword speed), and search engine optimisation or SEO can be done. The last two categories, enterprise accounts and mini-programs have reached the fastest speed of growth in social media, and these include short videos and live streaming. For short videos, there is Tiktok, while Kuaishou is for live streaming. These always come with e-businesses for online shopping, for example, JD, Taobao, and Pinduoduo. Because of the coronavirus, many enterprises found a new way of selling products which is by live streaming. It’s so convenient as there’s no need to pay rent and there’s no need to setup and decorate a physical store. All you need are the presenter and the product. As such, this has prompted may celebrities such as movie stars, singers, and actors to do live streams to promote products.
It’s not only going into China that is the opportunity for companies around the world; it’s also the Chinese coming out of China. There are a growing number of Chinese companies that are looking for direct investment overseas. They are interested in partnering with companies at all stages of the supply Chain, and the growing trend, especially in the ASEAN and increasingly in Europe, has been the growth of the middle-class Chinese tourists. The application that they are looking at is Dazhong Dianping which basically means "public comments." It’s like TripAdvisor for the Chinese, and it has four and a half million merchants and 310 million monthly active users.
Dianping, the retail and consumer platform
As Charles was saying, the number of people on the internet and in China is phenomenal. Remember, there are 1.4 billion Chinese. The other key statistic about China is the use of mobile phones. With over 900 million mobile phone devices out there and with mobile apps that are geography- or location-specific, being sensitive to the opportunity arising from the mobile traveller is now more and more important. Dianping enables you to publish everything about your company in Chinese, and this can be applicable to restaurants, hotels, sports and activities, leisure centers, shopping for tourism, and so on. What’s interesting about Dianping is you can start an account from overseas and populate it content or anything one would expect from a consumer review site.
Dianping was purchased in 2014 by Tencent, and in China, the three big companies are Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent. They call them the BAT. Tencent bought Dianping so it now enables one to post reviews on WeChat and Dianping and have them go back and forth. Many companies are using WeChat for commerce, because it is an integrated communication platform where people can share videos and photographs either one-to-one or one-to-many in groups. Aside from that, they also have mini-programs which are used for shopping and applications like food delivery, package delivery, etc. Another great feature of Tencent’s WeChat is that it offers payment as well. So, from a PR point of view, what’s amazing about Dianping integrated with WeChat is that you’re getting your consumer, if it’s an outbound traveller, all the way from their messaging, sharing, and purchasing, and then also placing their reviews and sharing those in real time. It’s no surprise that this is a platform being used heavily in the Middle East by the Tourism Board of Dubai, as they’re getting Chinese tourists to post and share their experience to encourage other tourists come to the Middle East.
Simplicity is key
If you have a business that attracts people or companies from overseas, think about the cultural sensitivities, the language sensitivities, the holiday sensitivities, the timing, issues like currency, and most importantly, the platform. The Holy Trinity here of Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter don’t translate in many markets around the world, so look at adopting different platforms not just to attract the outbound audience but the inbound audience as well. The solution to addressing this complexity as entrepreneurs and business owners lies in simplicity. Even as you build complexity into the message, remember that the opportunity for miscommunication then becomes magnified, and this goes back to Wiio’s law, which basically implies that simplicity really is key.
The SPEAK|pr program talks about the need to Storify, Personalise, Engage, Amplify, and to Know, and companies like Apple and Nike do some of the best work in these areas. They keep the brand essence simple and at the same time allow the marketing to take place in-country, so the brand essence remains the same regardless of the country or language. Take, for instance, Chinese consumers, Chinese messaging, and Chinese holidays. These are all the key parts of the message. It’s not a localisation of a Western message into an Asian market.
Nelson Mandela once said that if you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head, but if you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart. So, as you take his words and think about public relations, the messaging that you have for clients, staff, and partners, try your best to communicate in a language that they understand, but also in a language that goes straight to their heart.