Lost in translation – the perils of international communications

For me, good communication depends on building an emotional connection with someone. It’s about considering their feelings as well their need for information. It often requires a balanced conversation, where you use the right verbal and non-verbal communications so that you understand each other, give each other space to talk, take time to listen, and be respectful of differences of opinion.

This is particularly important when organisations communicate internationally. The desire for a globally consistent brand and approach needs to be carefully weighed up against the importance of ensuring your message ‘lands’ and is sensitive to how things are done locally. With this in mind, I thought I would share a few points that I have learned about how to avoid some of the potential perils of international communications.



As George Bernard Shaw once said, “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” This is true not just for England and America. Every country has its own dialects, idioms and words so, for example, Filipino English will be distinct from Irish English or Ghanaian English and so one size is rarely going to fit all.

My last in-house communications role was for a British company that was majority-owned by the Qatari state oil company and so we issued our press releases in English and Arabic. When I needed to arrange for the Arabic translation to be done in London, our Qatari General Manager asked me to check where the translator was from. According to him, the Arabic spoken in the Gulf States has a lot of slang and colloquialisms whilst Syrian Arabic is considered more ‘pure’ (i.e. less tainted by Western influences.) However, in his view,  finding an Egyptian translator was the preferred option as a lot of  Arab language TV is produced in Egypt, and so this is the Arabic dialect that most people in the Middle East understand.

I also experienced this richness of variety and potential linguistic sensitivities when I spent some months travelling around South America. I particularly loved Argentina. However, I also learned that it has a difficult relationship with its neighbour Chile so if you’re trying to engage with a Chilean audience, it would be wise not to use an Argentine Spanish dialect.

2) The law

I previously worked for an American company which needed to make some changes to its operations in Europe. Some of the senior leaders were surprised that they couldn’t just sell a business, close a plant or make people redundant in the way that they could in the US because employees have more protection in Europe. This means that you have to consult with the employees, unions or works councils before you take significant action.


In some countries, such as Spain, the unions have a lot of influence and can actually stop you from doing what you want to do if you don’t manage things in the right way. Ensuring that you give employees or their representatives sufficient time to review your plans, be able to provide feedback and, in some cases, come up with alternative proposals, can make the difference between being able to implement the actions you want on the ground or not.

Of course, the law doesn’t just affect employee rights, it can influence how you engage with other stakeholders too. For example, I was involved in the community consultation for a proposed new power station in the UK and, in the last few years, the law has changed so that you now have to pre-consult with the local community before the actual consultation i.e. you need to explain what you’re thinking of doing and give the local people a chance to provide input before you set out your final plans.

As you’d expect, consumer rights, copyright, licensing and advertising standards are different in different countries, meaning that your global marketing campaign may need to be tailored for each market using alternative words and contract terms.

In another example, I recently attended a Chartered Institute of Public Relations event at the UK Houses of Parliament where the main speaker was Lord Bilimoria, the founder of Cobra Beer. In his speech, he explained that a ban on the use of advertising for alcoholic beverages in India meant that he had to use public relations much more extensively to promote his brand there than in other markets.

So spending some time finding out about a country’s legal idiosyncrasies before you launch your global campaign, is a wise investment of time.

3) The right spokespeople for the right audience


4) Culture, images and symbols One of the few exceptions to the ‘local is best’ approach that I’ve experienced was when I worked on a launch campaign in Spain. In that case, the local management team specifically asked for senior leaders from overseas to be involved so as to add weight to the launch with the local media and to explain how what we were doing in that market fitted into the company’s global launch plans.Whenever I’ve worked on global campaigns, I’ve tried, where possible, to use local employees as external spokespeople rather than someone from head office. Not only do they speak the language and understand the local market and customs better but they normally have more credibility with their audience. In a crisis situation, they are also more likely to be able to appreciate the full impact of a situation, be perceived as being able to do something about it and are able to respond quicker than someone on a different time zone.I have a personal view that, with the right training, preparation and support from their communications team, there is no reason why any leader can’t be a good communicator. The key point for me is about matching the right spokesperson with the right audience. I have found it helpful for the companies I’ve worked for to have a mix of representatives, with some able to talk about any topic at a high level and others acting as technical experts to talk about a specific area in more detail.

Another potential peril to consider with international communications is what particular images or symbols mean in different cultures. In the Western world, an open hand is perceived as welcoming,  demonstrating open behaviour. However, if it’s a left hand, in many parts of the Muslim world, that’s considered the ‘toilet wiping’ hand – hardly the best brand association. Similarly, the soles of the feet and use of animals may not be appropriate images to use in communications in Muslim countries or communities either.


In Western cultures, the number 13 is unlucky, but in China it’s the number 4 or any numbers including a four that are unlucky. The image below from a Chinese lift respectfully avoids 4, 13 and 14 so that everyone will think that this is a lucky building!


Some cultural sensitivities are harder to know about unless you’ve spent some time there. I had a colleague that was running a media training session for communicators in Nigeria. One of the golden rules if you are being interviewed on camera is that you should always maintain eye contact to avoid looking insincere. However, in Nigeria, as a sign of respect, people are taught not to look directly at someone who is older or more senior to them which made for quite a challenging course where most of the participants stared at the floor throughout their TV interview practice.

Similarly, a lot of companies sign up to the principle of 360-degree feedback where managers are encouraged to seek feedback from their team and their peers as well as their line manager. However, in more traditional and hierarchical cultures, such as Japan, if a junior member of staff gave honest feedback to a senior manager in an open forum, this would likely be embarrassing for everyone in the room. This doesn’t mean that you can’t have a 360-degree feedback system in these countries. It’s just that you might want to tweak the approach so that the feedback is given in an appropriate environment.

5) Channels

One other area where international communications can get ‘lost in translation’ is when you don’t use the best channels for your audience. In one example, an international consumer brand employed thousands of seasonal workers in East Africa to pick its tea harvest each year. A tea picker is normally at their most skilled when they are 16- 26 years i.e. young, experienced and fast. This is also the age group that has the highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS cases yet often has the poorest understanding of good sexual health practices.  In short, people were dying – and the company was losing a significant number of its best workers.

My partner was asked by this firm to help develop a sexual health awareness campaign for their workforce. With little access to technology, a high level of illiteracy and over 27 separate languages spoken amongst the workers, this wasn’t as straightforward as it sounds.


In many communities where people can’t read and write, oral storytelling and music are important ways to share information. With this in mind, she worked with the local team to develop a campaign in Kiswahili (often the ‘common’ language amongst tribes in certain parts of Africa) that used song and dance to explain to their employees how to protect themselves against infection. Tribal elders were engaged in the process and asked to help deliver the message, as the weight that their views carried was significant. The success of this campaign resulted in significantly lower new infection rates amongst  the company’s employees.

Lastly, it’s sometimes easy to forget that there are still a lot of people working in areas like manufacturing, retail, hospitality and mining that might not have access to a PC or tablet. Similarly, the Wi-Fi or mobile reception 2,000ft underground in your company’s copper mine or 300 miles offshore on your company’s oil rig might not be as good as it is in head office.

With this in mind, if you’re planning a global employee communications programme aimed at these ‘offline’ audiences, you may have to incorporate some more traditional communications channels such as staff meeting discussions, using notice boards or including messages on payslips.

In summary, effective international communications does come with its own particular considerations. There is no replacement for upfront effort in finding out what will work on the ground in the countries you want to reach. It’s all about getting to know your audience and, with sensitivity and understanding, there is no reason why your message should have to  get ‘lost in translation.’


Daniel Schraibman is a director of communications, coaching and business consultancy Serekinti www.serekinti.com.


IABC UK lands in Leeds

We’re delighted to welcome 80 new members from Leeds University Business School (LUBS) to the UK chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC UK).

Tony Byng, Programme Director – Corporate Communications, Marketing and Public Relations at LUBS said, “This partnership couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. We are in the process of designing a new Masters Programme in Corporate Communications, Marketing and Public Relations, starting in September 2016.

“We will be seeking to forge a mutually beneficial relationship with IABC members as we continue to develop and deliver cutting edge teaching content in conjunction with industry.”

IABC Leeds image 1

Casilda Malagon, IABC UK President said: “The UK chapter has traditionally had a large number of professional members in and around London. Over the last two years, the board set itself a number of objectives. Firstly, we looked at how we could expand and use our global network –the biggest in the world- to connect with the rest of the UK.

“Secondly we wanted to engage with our existing members, who cover the full spectrum of communication disciplines, and ensure they got enough value for their membership. Thirdly, we wanted to create long-term, sustainable relationships with the next generation of communicators. This new partnership with Leeds University helps us to progress all of these goals.”

Growth in student membership

Over the last 18 months, IABC UK has formed partnerships with the London College of Communications, Bournemouth University and now LUBS. This has not only increased overall membership but has also changed the shape of the chapter with a better balance between professional and student members, a younger age profile and a more international focus for the chapter.

IABC Leeds image 2

For a lot of students, it can be difficult to gain practical communications experience before they graduate. By getting involved in IABC events and activities, all our members gain new knowledge and skills that can make a real difference to them landing their next job.

Mentoring programme

When I was at university, I wasn’t aware of all the organisations and types of communications roles that were out there. One of the benefits of being an IABC member is the free mentoring programme which is available to everyone.

For the mentee, it means that you can find out more from professionals about particular sectors or areas of communications. This means that you can make informed decisions about what career route to explore further, and you’ve also got a head start in landing your next role as you have built connections with people already working in that field.

Mentoring is also positive for the mentor as you can learn a great deal from your mentee, it helps you to reconnect with your own skills and abilities, improve your team management and coaching skills and could mean that you’ve found a good candidate for your organisation.

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At LUBS, Lynn Pattison is the Professional Development Tutor – Marketing Division is responsible for forging better links between the university and outside organisations. “IABC provides an excellent opportunity for our students to engage with their global network of communication professionals, and for us to showcase the remarkable talent that we have here at LUBS.” said Lynn.

If you are interested in becoming a mentor or mentee, drop us a line.

Developing IABC across the UK and offering better value to members

One of the main benefits of IABC membership is building connections with communicators in the UK and across the world and we’ve tried to help make that happen.

Firstly, the IABC globally, the IABC in Europe Middle East and North Africa and the UK chapter have all revamped their websites with more and better content. There’s also active social media channels so you can learn from or ask question of your fellow members, or engage in a debate on a communications issue.

Secondly, we’re running more events across the UK. We had our first event in South West England in Bath in 2014 in partnership with the South West Corporate Communicators LinkedIn group. We were very privileged to have social media experts Shel Holz and Dana Poole travel from San Francisco and London respectively to share their thoughts on where they saw the industry going.

On the 24 February, we’re excited to have our first event the North East of England in Leeds. We’re expecting a good turnout with more than 100 people attending. There’s going to be some entertaining and insightful observations from the speakers in our Rapido session (no more than five minutes each and five slides) and time to network with communications colleagues. If that’s not enough to tempt you, drinks and nibbles will be provided and the event is free to both members and non-members. However places are limited and so you’ll need to book here.

Dr. Kendi Kinuthia – Senior Teaching Fellow and Module Leader – Corporate Communications said, “Our mission at Leeds University Business School is to ‘make an impact on business and society globally through leadership in research and teaching. As such, we look forward to connecting with IABC’s global network and see this as a great opportunity to share our world class research.”

As most of us involved in the IABC are volunteers, the chapter is only as good as the energy and enthusiasm of its members so if you would like to help organise, sponsor or speak at an event where you are, get in touch: [email protected]

Daniel Schraibman is board member of IABC UK and Director of communications, coaching and business consultancy Serekinti http://serekinti.com/.


Useful links

IABC UK LInkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/groups/3748469

IABC UK Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/iabcuk/

IABC UK FourSquare https://foursquare.com/iabcuk

IABC UK Google+ https://plus.google.com/u/0/b/115827471429703125030/115827471429703125030/posts

IABC UK Pinterest https://www.pinterest.com/iabcuk/

IABC UK SlideShare http://www.slideshare.net/IABC-UK

IABC UK Twitter https://twitter.com/iabcuk

IABC Europe Middle East & Africa website https://iabcemena.com/

IABC global website https://www.iabc.com/

Buncefield: Ten Years’ On

buncefield fire













This month sees the 10th anniversary of the fire at the Buncefield Oil Terminal near London. The explosion that started the fire was the largest in peacetime Europe, measured 2.4 on the Richter scale and could be heard as far away as The Netherlands. Thankfully, no-one was killed as the incident took place early on a Sunday morning and so the busy industrial estate opposite the site was almost deserted.

The terminal was majority-owned and operated by Total, with Chevron owning a minority stake. I was part of the Chevron in-house team that managed the communications in the immediate aftermath of the incident, and helped to protect the company’s reputation during the official investigation and legal cases that followed.

Widespread media interest

In the first three days after the incident, we had 350 media enquiries and a considerable volume of calls from people and businesses in the local community that had been affected.

Understandably, the local press was mainly interested in the impact on the surrounding community whilst the national press focussed on the M1 being closed and potential supply shortages. The forecourt, commercial fuels and aviation trade press covered the short and long-term supply implications, insurance journalists wanted to know who we were insured with, the legal publications asked us who was providing litigation support, and the business pages and newswires looked at the financial costs of the incident.

We also had media enquiries from around the world where Chevron had other facilities, asking what we were doing to make sure that this didn’t happen in their community.

Recognising that key to managing the incident well would be timely, aligned and accurate responses, within hours of the explosion, the two in-house communications teams at Total and Chevron took a number of joint steps. Firstly, we enlisted staff from a PR agency to provide additional support for the joint venture to deal with the volume of calls. Secondly, we established a short sign-off procedure involving a UK business leader, lawyer and communicator for each company. This meant we were able to deal with enquiries quickly – which would have been difficult if we had needed approval from our US head office eight time zones away. We also appointed a knowledgeable site manager as media spokesperson as we recognised the importance of a having a real person representing the joint venture at the terminal during the incident.

Whilst the lawyers made sure that any official communications were appropriate from a legal perspective, as communications practitioners, we ensured that how the companies responded considered the needs of the people who were asking or were affected i.e. making sure that what we said was reasonable.

Vital role of communications

For example, it took a number of years before the official investigation determined who was responsible for the incident. However, the two companies that owned the terminal made a decision, without admitting liability, to support the local community financially, both in the immediate aftermath of the incident and in the rebuilding process, rather than wait for the investigation to be completed. I think this was the reasonable thing to do.

Providing the information, access and support that the official investigators needed to do their jobs certainly helped to demonstrate that we also wanted to find out what had happened and to try and learn from it. I think this was one of the reasons why the official investigators sent us their findings prior to them being released to the public and this meant that we were able to have our spokesperson, agreed response and updated reactive Q&As in place by the time the media started to call.

I’m proud of the fact that although Chevron and Total were in dispute about responsibility for the incident, the communications teams continued to maintain a good working relationship throughout.

One thing that I learned from Buncefield was the importance of building long-term relationships with key stakeholders at a time when you don’t need them. As Chevron was only a minority shareholder in the facility, we left our joint venture partner to build and manage the site community relations. As such, Chevron didn’t have the relationships with the local community or MP before the incident and it was much harder to build these after the incident took place. The learning is – if you have some responsibility for an asset, time invested in local stakeholder management is always worthwhile and can pay real dividends if something goes wrong.

Daniel Schraibman was a Senior Communications Adviser at Chevron and is now a director of communications, coaching and business consultancy firm, Serekinti 

Three ills that can come in the way of effective crisis communications

Not preparing

It doesn’t just mean having a crisis communication plan and doing emergency exercises but also:

  • Building relations with key stakeholders in the good times – not just the people you have to speak like regulators, shareholders and customers to but also the influencers, e.g. journalists and politicians.
  • If you have a large physical footprint, ensure that you have a well-established CSR programme as this means that you have some positive reputation in the bank.
  • You have ready prepared reactive statements, a shadow website, a key facts document and any library images.


Missing the golden hour

  • They say that you’ve got an hour after a crisis to be able to influence how a story is reported, and if you don’t provide sufficient information in time, they’ll contact someone else such as your regulator, competitor, or disgruntled former employees and write the story from their perspective instead.
  • You need short decision lines on communications.
  • Be aware of media needs and deadlines, e.g. offer spokesperson for interview, or hold a press conference and provide images or footage when they need it.
  • Demonstrate action and concern and if you don’t know all the information, provide a time and date when you will give a further update.


Not picking up the pieces

  • It takes time to rebuild a reputation so after a crisis, demonstrate what you have done to deal with the issue and explain what you’ve learned or what’s changed to prevent this from happening again.


Further reading:

Crisis Management and Communication – Third Edition
Authors: Dan Millar, Ph.D., Larry Smith