With the internet and social media enabling the fast and efficient distribution of communications messages, it’s easy to overlook the complexity of cross-cultural communication. A message that works in one country can be misconstrued in another, whilst the accepted working practices of a CEO in one region can be markedly different to those in another.
What are the challenges for the modern day global communicator and how can these be overcome?
Communication is broader than language
One of the most important things to recognise, says Claudia D’Amato, a change communication manager at Anglo American, is that communication is broader than just differences in language.
“Communication is about culture and symbols,” says Claudia, “and a closeness to the culture of the people you want to communicate with is key.”
Tom Blackwell is an experienced communicator who is CEO of EM Communications based in Moscow. He believes it’s not enough to parachute specialists in to promote stories and campaigns on an ad hoc basis: “You must have teams that are living and breathing the issue; some communications just cannot be done remotely.”
As Michael Ambjorn points out, communications is no longer an English-centric or Euro-centric activity, there is always an international element to all messaging.
One of the best ways to grow your understanding of a culture, country or audience is simply by talking and listening to people, as well as being patient. “One of the things that I have learned over the years is that it’s important to assume good intent,” says Emma Thompson at the IABC’s session ‘The World Is Your Oyster: Making Global Communications Work’.
Be prepared and do your research
“Good intercultural skills certainly include patience, trust and a whole lot of listening,” says Emma, who has worked across the Middle East and Africa for more than ten years as a senior communicator.
Emma has clear guidance for those wishing to break into regions in which they have little experience or presence. “It’s worth considering a focus on specific markets or key potential growth areas so that you can do your research properly.”
Focused, rather than broad comms, often work best. “It’s also important to develop and maintain senior buy-in to the communications plan with continuing education,” says Emma. She also encourages communicators to research and understand the ‘rules of the game’ when it comes to social media in the country or region. Planning can also ensure your schedule does not clash with local holidays or religious events.
Reach for the heart, not the head
The panel at this IABC event in London agreed on the importance of local language and versioning for communications. Claudia D’Amato of Anglo American reminded us of Nelson Mandela’s famous quotation, that if you talk to a man in a language he understands, it goes to his head whilst If you talk to him in his language, it goes to his heart.
Other tips for improved communications at the IABC UK’s session – hosted by VMA Group – include:
- Identify local champions for your comms strategy
- Consider arranging regular ‘virtual brown bag’ lunches or Skype chats to build understanding and bridges
- Use resources such as the World Economic Forum’s blog and website to build knowledge
- Utilise the IABC’s Global Standard for insight and guidance
The International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) is a global membership association with a network of 12,000 members in more than 80 countries. We deliver on the Global Standard in communication through educational offerings, certification, awards programs and annual World Conference. Follow us on Twitter @iabcuk