PR: Thinking global, and acting local in good communications practice

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One of the favourite phrases beloved by communicators in the 1990s was “Think global. Act local.”

Although I often heard people working for a well-known global multinational (not one in which I was employed) say that in practice this meant “Think global, act American!”

In the first flush of enthusiasm for globalisation big corporations embraced the “glocal” mantra as a way to express their understanding of the need to allow for geopolitical differences affecting their operations in different parts of the world under the umbrella of building a global brand.

Through this time and the early years of this century I built and led international communications teams for two of the biggest thinking globally and acting locally corporations, McDonald’s and Microsoft.

In both the “glocal” approach ran through communications work as much if not more than any other aspect of the businesses.

We established a Global Communications Council in McDonald’s, and in Microsoft a Global Geopolitical Intelligence Unit.

Each with the same intention to share experience and expertise, to identify risks, opportunities and most importantly trends, and to develop a hub of best practice ideas, not to be applied as a global “one size fits all” template, but more as a “mix ‘n’ match” approach. In both organisations these groups met physically and virtually.

In McDonald’s there was (and is) a strong ethos running through the “three-legged stool” of company, franchisees and suppliers that “many heads are better than one head.”

The Microsoft version of this was a call to “steal shamelessly.” Both thoughts were born of an understanding that nobody has a monopoly on wisdom and that one of the advantages of big organisations is that they have a lot of wisdom to draw upon.

Throughout both businesses from global through regional to country and local levels, and in all functional areas of the businesses including communications, versions of these global groups proliferated.

We were big on getting our brains together.

Within my communications teams at EMEA level, with over 200 people working in-house in each of these businesses, we brought people together across the continents through regular team conference calls, webcasts, and intranet sharing, and more importantly through conferences where we met to build our teams, develop our people, share ideas and to take part in workshops and plenaries with world-class speakers from government, media, business, and communications.

Key to the success of these international meetings and to the global, country and local versions also held regularly was the inclusion and integration of agency advisers.

In both corporations communications agencies were appointed to support the business at every level globally and in every sub-division of communications expertise. Some agencies were appointed with global briefs across all or part of the business, others locally.

The template for this integrated approach for me was initiated in the UK when I was a country head of communications for McDonald’s. In 1996, following the purchase of our full-service agency Scope by Ketchum, with guidance from my consultant, friend and mentor (the late) James Maxwell, CEO of Scope, I took a new approach to the use of agencies, moving away from a full-service one agency approach to the appointment of a portfolio of new agencies.

Having spent six months reviewing the agency options in London at that time I concluded that in true McDonald’s fashion “many heads are better than one” and that each agency I met was the best at something, but none were the best at everything.

After an extensive and exhaustive pitch process, I therefore ended up appointing the agencies, or to be more accurate – appointing the people, who I felt to be best in each communications discipline – government (Weber Shandwick), issues (Luther Pendragon), internal  (Burson-Marsteller), consumer and sport (Red), corporate (Fishburn Hedges), property development (Camargue), community and CSR (Porter Novelli).

The Red Consultancy are still part of the McFamily 22 years later.

I saw the opportunity from this portfolio approach to do what now we might call crowdsourcing talent. I brought the agency leads of these agencies together for regular dinners and other events to form a “Brains Trust” for me. Above and beyond the “day job” assignments, my idea was to try to make 2+2=5.

At first the seven agencies were nervous of each other and me assuming this was some kind of extended competitive pitch to thin them out, but over time we developed friendships and trust to share ideas together and to take a collaborative approach. I believe we all benefited.

This is a model I used in different ways and circumstances in every subsequent in-house role and hiring of agency teams. Finding the right comms support is more often about finding the right people, and they rarely if ever sit in one place.

The internationalism and inclusivity of approach built across divisions of geography (and language/politics/culture), communications disciplines, and in-house/agency as well as the seamless integration of country, regional and global manifestations of this created a communications version of the core of McDonald’s approach to business – the “McFamily.”

With no apology for sounding so clichéd and corny, we brought to life the Musketeers cry of “one for all, and all for one.”

On the international stage this portolio approach extended to the appointment of some global, some regional but mostly local agencies. My search was always to find the people who knew the local culture, governments and media best.

I recommend (and have recommended!) this thinking to all multinational organisations. This was an approach developed in the 1990s and of course circumstances, challenges, opportunities, technologies, and budgets (!) are very different now. But the core of thought is just as relevant now as then.

My “takeaways” were:

  • Global brands benefit from localisation of communications just as much as localisation of product, because it’s all about people, and people are different.
  • Take a “one team” approach with internal and external resources. A collaborative and inclusive approach can make 2+2 =5.
  • Nothing beats local knowledge.
  • Creativity and winning ideas come when people keep talking, meeting and sharing.
  • People hire people, not brands or organisations. It’s not the name over the door that matters most, it’s the people inside.

 

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