A case for decentralizing global communication

What starts small as an adventure between a handful of like-minded professionals can, with the propellant of success, grow quickly into a large entity sprawling first the region, then a country, and finally the globe. And with growth come more revenue, more operating costs and more communication quandaries.

Founders often reminisce nostalgically of a time when communication was as simple as turning around and talking to the small group of people in their modest digs. With expansion, such simple and direct forms of communication are no longer practical or often physically possible – how do you find a space large enough to fit a thousand employees from different countries at the same time on a regular basis?

As an organization becomes global, communication assumes greater complexity and greater importance. No communication, poor communication, or miscommunication can create grave issues for an organization.

Local offices begin to feel increasingly disconnected from the topmost executives at the global level, their envisioned direction for the company and corresponding reasons. By “local”, we mean offices that reside in cities and towns in countries often different from the one housing the global headquarters. 


The straight transplant

The knee-jerk reaction is to transplant marketing material, advertisements, communication and PR campaigns in their original form from the head office (often in North America or Europe) to other regional or global offices. This might be the easiest thing to do, and companies may even get by, especially if they are pushing a largely technical product with few cultural complexities.

For services and more intricate products, this approach usually does not work.

Sensibilities of other regions are not always the same as those where the head office is located. It is important to consider the sociocultural and political landscape of the destination. Even a quintessentially American company that enjoys worldwide popularity will have to adapt to respect local mores, when operating in a different country.

Even a lingua franca (that prevails to a reasonable degree) is not an indication of homogeneity.

Consider a country like India. To the uninitiated, it is a homogenous entity where Bollywood, Hindi (the “Indian” language), computer programmers, tech support, and business process outsourcing firms, apply equally across the length and breadth of the varied land and its diverse population.

In reality, it has several hundred languages, thousands of dialects, different cultures, customs and traditions – traveling a few hundred kilometers (depending on where one’s starting point is, of course) will lead one to a completely different people speaking a different language and observing different cultural norms. (Dr. Shashi Tharoor’s The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cell Phone: Reflections on India, the Emerging 21st-Century Power is an excellent dissertation on the diversity of India and the unity found in spite of it and because of it.)

Or Europe with its 44 odd countries — each with its distinct history, society, politics and sensitivities. Communication that ignored the historical aspect would risk offending certain nations. What works in Germany may not be transplantable literatim to, say, Poland.

One size or type of communication will not fit all. This is perhaps the most important case in point for localizing communication. 


Control of local communication

Many companies are structured such that the management and control of communication rest either at the national or global level. This means someone working at the national or global level decides and controls the messages that are issued to people in local offices.

For instance, digital signage is becoming increasingly popular as a paper-free and instantly-editable means of communicating with internal and external audiences. It works exceedingly well when local offices are given control of the content that shows up on their screens. There is a sense of excitement among audiences who recognize faces and names that appear on the signage. The events, concerns, opportunities are local, which appeal to the local audience.

However, when such a vehicle is controlled at the national or global levels, then the messages become more abstract and less arresting. It is also possible that people mentally switch off and become blind to this expensive vehicle.

A news value that journalists use to evaluate the newsworthiness of a story is “proximity” – does the story hit close to where the audience is? The same can be applied to communication.

Another aspect to consider is the process to manage and make content live.

If there is a circuitous and bureaucratic procedure to get a message designed, approved and then pushed to the signage, then communication practitioners at the local level are disillusioned. When something meant for Victoria, Canada, must be routed through a team in Toronto or New York, with no guarantee of whether it will be treated as important enough for immediate processing, then it poses a problem for local practitioners.

Such a process also affects the speed with which a request from a client (internal or external) can be implemented.

Local communication professionals lose credibility (and face) with their local clients, if every local request is delayed because it has to be routed through the national or global level. There is a window of relevance for any communique. If it is lost, then the message becomes obsolete. 

Even worse is the inability of the local professional to promise that the message would even go live, given that national or global management might find it not important enough to merit placement.

And who is to say that the once-too-often slighted local client would not use their personal connections and clout at headquarters to bypass the local communication professional altogether.

In extreme cases, defeated and dejected, the local communication professional may even exclude this vehicle from their communication plans, simply to avoid the beadledom.


Global takeover of local vehicles

Some managers attempt to move a popular local communication vehicle to the national or global level, in hopes of latching on to and replicating its success at a wider level.

Concepts can of course move freely across tiers. However, communication vehicles or products are another story. What works well at the local level does so because it appeals to that particular demographic, because it was conceived, based at, and intended for the local audience.

Simply taking it over and declaring it a national or global communication vehicle does not guarantee its success across different audiences.

Communication vehicles meant for the national or global levels should be conceived at that level, with the larger and more diverse audience in mind. It merits a different mindset, a different set of goals and objectives.


Source credibility and rote forwarding

The issuer of a message has a bearing on how it is received and perceived by an audience, and subsequently on its impact. In communication theory, it is known as source credibility.

In certain large companies, it is not unusual to find people in local offices who are unaware of who their global executives are, simply because it makes no difference to their daily work. But they will certainly know their local management.

So it follows that a message from a senior global executive will make much less headway with a local audience than one from local management.

Practitioners, particularly the ones in local offices, will have observed that global communication often loses impact and audience penetration. The farther away from their milieu the message comes from, the less it resonates with people on the ground. Such messages are seen as wishy-washy airy-fairy stuff that doesn’t matter to people at the local level; or even as corporate “propaganda” (we’ve personally heard it referred to as that). It is not unusual to find local office directors advising their people to simply focus on the job at hand and to safely ignore such messages from “up there”.

Some managers have tried to remedy this problem by asking national executives to relay the same message to their national audiences. In turn, the national managers ask regional and local executives to send it out to their audiences.

In effect, a global message is sent multiple times – often verbatim – to the same audience. Sometimes, the message is simply forwarded, without a cover note or customization, by regional and local managers (who find it an avoidable waste of time and focus). And it is no secret what people think of and do with emails whose subject line features “FW:” and worse “FW:FW:FW:”


The need for an emotional hook

Communication, to be effective, must have some level of emotional appeal. Content coming from the global and national levels usually does not hold such allure for a local audience.

This is why a local communication professional is necessary – to help the local opinion leader or influencer interpret the global message to engage the local populace.

If budgets do not allow the retention of a communication professional in each local office, then the regional or national communication professional would do well to learn (on a continuous basis) the issues, needs and spirit of each local office under their purview. Such intimate knowledge will help immensely in crafting a message that is meaningful and relevant for people in local offices.  


The Verafluenti aperçu

The suggestion is not to cut off all ties between the local, regional, national and global levels; or to allow absolute anarchy in local offices. Assuredly there must be a strong link and reasonable oversight. Local communication must doubtless be aligned with regional, national and global business priorities.

The global management team would decide on the organizational goals and the related messages to be communicated to audiences.

How such messages are communicated to audiences at different levels is best left to those who intimately understand these levels.

For example, if a global priority were a commitment to a strong health and safety culture, a local office may decide to communicate this in different ways, some of which might be:

  • Holding pre-field-work huddles to evaluate hazards and figure out ways to mitigate risks; and conducting post-field-work debriefs to share lessons which can help plan safer work.
  • Distributing safety equipment that goes above the legally stipulated minimum, thereby demonstrating (by action) the company’s desire to set higher standards for their people’s safety.
  • Organizing mock drills.
  • Offering company-paid training in safety techniques to people.

Such ground-level actions drive the message home far better than flowery catch-phrases and gilt-framed commitment statements.


Leeway for local content

There are things, events, people, news and content that are undeniably local in nature. They would be completely irrelevant to national or global audiences: Now on the strength of this thesis, to find that such content is not aligned with national or global priorities, and to decree them unacceptable, is counterproductive.

Understandably, local needs and wants will be different from the national or global counterparts. That does not make them null and void. In fact, content that speaks to such needs and wants will win the favour and attention of their audiences. 

Again, this calls for tailoring global and national content to make sense at the local level.


Decentralization for efficiency

Decentralizing the approval process will expedite the journey from inception to execution, and help local communication professionals to earn the respect of their clients.

It will also remove unnecessary workload from national and global management, whose time would be better spent catering to the needs of their corresponding tiers, instead of handling approval of local office content.

If the right people have been hired at all levels, then management would feel comfortable leaving decisions in the safe and capable hands of professionals functioning at those levels.


Let bright minds localize global messages

It is irrational (and bad for business and morale) for communication directors in New York, London, Paris, Sydney and Toronto (among others) to believe they know what would work best for local audiences in faraway cities in different countries.

It is difficult for executives at the global level to be fully aware of what happens on the ground at the local level. It is unreasonable to expect or require them to do so. Their charge is to helm the corporate ship at more aggregate levels. 

Fortunately, bright minds burn anywhere – in the towns and countryside just as much as in metropolises.

The solution is simply to use the intelligence and sway at each level appropriately. Let the people who understand the lay of the land determine how best to localize communication so it is penetrating and effective.


A federalist analogy

In some respects, a global organization is not unlike a federation: It has a central government and a reporting structure stretching down into countries, regions, cities and towns to ensure good management and attainment of the union’s overall aspirations.

The centre guides the union, while the states manage their own affairs independently as they see fit to align with the larger goals of the federation.

Global organizations can draw on this concept.

Managed properly and intelligently, global messages can be localized effectively to ensure people at the all levels are informed, engaged and spirited.

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This post was written by Raaj Chandran, executive director and chief consultant for Verafluenti Communication Inc.

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