Think global, act local? Not anymore.

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In "International Public Relations in Practice" Angela Heylin (1991) says: "Cultural, regulatory, financial media and government relations all vary from one country to the next and public relations practice has to adapt to these local needs and conditions." She`s one of the many supporters of the popular guideline "Think global, act local". But that was 20 years ago, and today, fewer organizations have a totally domestic perspective, even when they aren`t operating outside of their own national borders. That`s because the issues that are concerning people often have a relevance around the world. That is particularly applicable when it comes to European countries which share similar beliefs and agendas, and are stronger connected than ever before. In my opinion, thinking global without actually implementing an international strategy isn`t enough anymore, especially when it comes to corporate communications.

When you think of global PR disasters, most case studies focus on big culture clashs, like Pepsodent Toothpaste (who advertised white teeth in Southeast Asia, when actually Natives found black teeth more attractive) or Ford who launched the "Pinto" in Brazil (not knowing that it translated to "small male genitals"). Cross cultural differences can make or break a PR campaign. This is especially important for big international conglomerats who communicate globally. However, international PR disasters don`t always evolve from cultural missunderstanding, but also when PR is badly planned and the international perspective is left out. That was the case when Shell UK planned to dump the redundant oil storage plattform Brent Spar in the North Sea in 1995. Shell had followed all British and international laws, but wasn`t considering the geography that gave neighbouring countries a stake in the decision. Greenpeace on the other hand, was well organized on an international level and was therefore able to seriously harm Shell. Greenpeace managed to trigger antagonism to Shell in Germany, which considered the North Sea a "German Sea". It ended up getting huge media coverage and Shell gas stations were boycotted, later some were even fire-bombed.
First, the media attention in Germany was only limited to the northern (costal) areas, but since Greenpeace activists occupied the Brent Spar for three weeks the media coverage exploded and celebrities, politicians and even the church took part in the discussion. Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Iceland and Norway got involved in the discussion, because they all felt concerned about the North Sea area and somehow responsible for it. In Germany, the issue got very political, politicians of the Green Party pressured Chancellor Helmut Kohl to stop the dumping process - in fact, he begged British PM John Major to withdraw the dumping permit.

But the real disaster was that German Shell barely got any informaton from Shell UK to begin with. And when the scandal began, they had no idea what was going on, because no one had felt the need to inform them. When the crisis emerged, a fast reaction was crucial. But Shell UK hadn`t thought about translating any of their reports or material into other languages. So Shell Germany had to hand out English leaflets at gas stations in order to inform customers about their point of view. They completely failed to gain the European public`s support because their thinking was limited to a local angle. Greenpeace, on the other hand, was well prepared and provided information for citizens of every involved country. Shell`s sales dropped by 30% in Germany. Intracompany warfare ensued between Shell UK and Shell Germany. Shell UK had made a huge mistake by not taking its European neighbours into account.

Shell eventually gave in and stopped the dumping process. Since then, they have learnt their lesson. They came up with an extensive and global Corporate Identity program intended to highlight their commitment to sustainable development and promote a positive image in the 140 countries in which they operate. Shell started to implement a communication strategy based on the principles of dialogue and transparency and therefore was able to regain most of its old reputation.

This example shows how important international consultation is when it comes to PR. Europe is growing together and the internet makes it even easier to tear down the walls between nations. Since we`re on our way to become one European nation, there is no "local" anymore.

Nally, M. (1991): International Public Relations in Practice. London: Kogan Page Limited.
Morley, M. (2002): How to manage your global reputation. London: Palgrave.

2 Responses to "Think global, act local? Not anymore." (Leave A Comment)

samya says
20 February 2010 at 22:16

good analyses, good ideas. i enjoyed reading your blog :)

yashuaib says
21 February 2010 at 02:04

Truly, you have not only theoritized the argument on international PR but also demonstrated the global concept of communication by citing clear example from other countries, not only the usual references to US, UK, but Brazil and intervention of European, especially German that receives more mentions here.

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