Tip Sheet: Global PR: Find Your Inner Foreign Correspondent

Trevor C. Hale

SHANGHAI—A New York Times correspondent in China called with a hot story. He’d just spoken to the CEO of a Chinese company who wanted to buy a plant in Brazil and move it to China. The plant was owned in a three-way partnership among American, Japanese and German interests.

As a China-based spokesman for one of the companies (and by virtue of being the one to answer the call) it fell on me to loop in local and global PR colleagues.

Once published, the story spread like a bad case of bird flu. In Brazil, there was blow-by-blow coverage of the resulting protests at the plant (they called them “manifestations”); the stories in China extolled the entrepreneurial spirit of the Chinese CEO; Japanese media reported the advantages of running a wholly-owned enterprise; in Germany, there were strongly opinionated pro and con stories; and in the U.S., the industry media pondered the pitfalls of partnerships.

The speed and impact of the story were profound. None of the partners were happy and there was little consistency in the global coverage. This communications fail remains a valuable lesson in how to better manage global media relations.

Having served half of my 20-year career in Asia, I hope the following tips provide some insights to help better manage PR internationally.   

1. Work Like a Wire: The international wire services not only have access to everything published about your company or client, their coverage can evolve with the sun as their global bureaus come to life. A two-sentence flash report from the Tokyo bureau may be a full-on feature after San Francisco weighs in historical quotes and context 18 hours later.

The challenge for communicators is having the tools and culture in place to elevate timely information quickly, to hone the sixth sense needed to recognize what might make news and to understand how it might impact the concerns of diverse constituents in markets around the world (especially via social media). If your CEO has a breakfast meeting with media in New York, is he ready to respond to news that broke overnight in Beijing?

Ideally, the tools, processes and executive/client trust are already entrenched in your organization. If not, war game some worst-case scenarios. Make sure top execs are included in the training. They’ll be forever grateful.

2. It’s All About the Customer: It should go without saying that, given shrinking resources, media need compelling art, infographics, anecdotes, quotes, video and an expert who can tell your story credibly. Journalists are increasingly expected to service multiple platforms with varied content. I’ve seen more and more “traditional” print writers whipping out tripods and video cameras in the middle of a tightly scheduled program trying do quick stand ups for their website—stressed out, juggling huge tripods while holding iPhones.

Obviously, the more we anticipate and staff for their wants and whims, and the more we’re able to roll with the punches, the better the result.

3. To Thine Own Self Be True: The New York Time s recently ran an article detailing the widely accepted practice of buying positive news in emerging markets. The story quoted “pay for play” ad salespeople discussing rates for articles, and referenced the fees some companies pay media to cover events. Customers and media know and reward credible news. If they don’t, they will. Staying on the earned media high road will be rewarded in the long run.  

4. Be a Better Coach and Confidant: Our execs have plenty of people that agree with them. As stewards of our company’s conscience and owners of its story, it is our obligation to give honest feedback. Always. It’s one of our core responsibilities. In emerging markets it is more important than ever to make sure executives avoid cultural pitfalls, understand local nuances and know what messages most resonate. Equally important is that they understand how what they say abroad will play (or not) in Peoria. 

I’m very fortunate to know and work with many international correspondents. Without fail they are very smart and often have the impossible job of covering entire markets or sectors. In faraway places, relationships sometimes come easier.

As with all journalists, fully understanding and appreciating that their job may sometimes put them at odds with your company or client, and always treating them with integrity, will help ensure they will continue to rely on you. It may also earn you entrance and a cool drink at a far-flung foreign correspondent’s club.


Trevor C. Hale is director of corporate communications for Ford Asia Pacific and Africa, based in Shanghai. He can be reached at trevorcookhale@yahoo.com.