Is PR A Globalized Business?

Maybe it’s the fluttering Olympic flags around our East London offices, or my increasing obsession with what’s trending internationally on Twitter (right now, two different hash tags on Justin Bieber), or perhaps it’s simply the fact that I’m actually paid to do so, but I’ve been giving some thought to the globalization of the PR business.

More specifically, is it?

According to the International Communications Consultancy Organization, the umbrella group for nearly 30 national PR trade associations, more and more countries are organizing their markets for PR services by forming trade bodies, more and more PR consultancies are emerging in the developed and developing countries alike, and, with the exception of southern Europe, there’s more and more money coming in as fees or budgets for PR services. (Disclosure: I serve on the ICCO board as president-elect).

But in discussions with international clients, the answer is a little less clear.

Yes, dots are added to maps, and yes, agency credentials presentations are awash with BRIC ambitions or STIPS strategies (I just made that up: South Korea, Turkey, Indonesia, Poland and Singapore), and yes, social media is undoubtedly the earth-flattening technology of the decade.

But the promise of a fully developed global PR industry is somewhat removed from their daily experience with agencies and their own in-house teams. Quality varies from place to place. Talent is hard to find or move to where it’s needed. Global strategies can squelch local expertise. And markets are poorly organized in terms of pricing, standards or modes of operation.

So if the prospect of a globalized PR industry remains more aspirational than real, what can we do to get a little closer?

Quite a lot, I think, and importantly there are roles for all of the major global actors: clients, agencies and associations/professional societies. None of us can create a worldwide industry on our own, but together I believe can build a sustainable, enduring and growing business that spans borders and contributes to the global economy as a whole, without compromising quality, ethics or creativity.

Here’s how:

  • Establish global standards.   The best consultancies adhere to the highest ethical and professional standards set by their national associations, which in turn reflect international codes of conduct. Clients should hire only agencies that are members of and compliant with the standards set nationally by their trade association.  Agencies should join national associations wherever they operate. And where there are no national associations, agencies and clients might lead in setting them up to help develop and professionalize the market.
  • Fill the global talent pool.  Anyone who has tried to find good people in a hurry to work on a project in a part of the world that’s new for the organization or agency knows it’s not easy. There simply are not enough good, qualified people to put where the need is. Solution? We need to rapidly fill the talent pool with at least two kinds of specialists: those who can see the world from a global perspective while engaging local expertise; and local experts who can work to the highest international standards. In my experience, these kinds of specialists don’t make themselves, at least not quickly or the numbers needed to satisfy the market. We’ll need to create them ourselves, through specialized training, new partnerships with universities, collaboration through sharing best practice and experience with (gasp) competitors, employee “secondment” programs and just about anything else we can think of to produce what we need.
  • Develop a global mind-set.  The trickiest, but perhaps the most powerful, step toward developing a global industry is to get in the right frame of mind organizationally. This is more than hosting a management meeting abroad or sending forth a few Western executives for stints in foreign territories (although as an expat myself, I would hope these can help). It’s a commitment moving our best and brightest to wherever they’re needed, including global management positions, from wherever they may be, including the very new markets we are trying to incorporate.

Large multinational clients seem better at this than agencies, although most agencies are seriously trying to globalize their outlook and diversity their management structures and processes.

Have a better or additional idea?  I’d love to hear it.