New York shopping scene

Going Global: Using International PR to Expand Your Business

When should you start thinking about international PR? You’ve worked hard to grow your business. You’ve made some mistakes, some tough decisions, and endured many sleepless nights, but you’ve come out the other side with a profitable, thriving business – congratulations.

The next step is to expand into new territories: mainland Europe for instance, or further afield into China, Australia, or the US. But it’s a daunting prospect. Expanding successfully into foreign territories isn’t as simple as offering international shipping options; there’s a lot to think about, from recruitment and distribution to the various legal and financial requirements of each country.

And then there’s PR. International public relations is a whole different ballgame to domestic PR and there’s a lot of potential for things to go wrong.

Whether you’re a multinational company looking to boost your profile in the UK, or a UK-based business aiming to expand across the continent, the way you handle your international public relations campaigns is going to be a major factor in how things pan out. So, you need to get it right.

In this post we’re going to look at international PR in more detail and answer a few key questions, including:

  • What is international public relations?
  • What’s the difference between domestic and international PR campaigns?
  • Why is international public relations important?
  • What are the main things to consider with international PR?

We’ll also look at a few examples of international public relations campaigns done right and those that have been less than successful.

But first, what is international public relations?

Girl drinks from coffee cup at German market

A quick Google search finds Arthur W. Page Center at the top of the results page, with the following international public relations definition: ‘International public relations refers to the practice of public relations that occurs across international boundaries and cultures. This type of public relations occurs when an organisation and its publics are in different countries.’

To move into these markets, you don’t need a stellar PR plan. You need a stellar international PR plan.

And yes, there’s a difference.

There are some significant differences between domestic and international public relations – not least the scope of the geographical area covered. There are also differences in culture, economic and political systems, language, sensibilities and worldviews to take into account.

Numerous international PR campaigns have fallen flat for being culturally tone-deaf. Take skincare brand Nivea for example. In 2017, they had to withdraw their ‘white is purity’ campaign and make a grovelling public apology after being branded ‘racist’ on social media.

While the general public was in uproar, the ad caught the attention of white supremacist groups who asserted that Nivea had ‘chosen their side.’

Needless to say, this was not the sort of PR Nivea was looking for.

Why is international public relations important?

Covered shopping arcade with designer ships Australia

We’ve looked at the ‘what,’ now let’s look at the why international public relations is important.

It’s never been easier to spread your business wings than it is now, thanks to social media and the host of ever improving remote communication tools.

As a 2020 M&Co article states: ‘advancements in technology have made cross-border communication easier, removing barriers that previously prevented people from engaging across time zones.’

However, you can’t just jump in with both feet and hope for the best. There’s a lot of groundwork to be covered. It’s crucial to consider the pitfalls of expansion, such as the aforementioned language barriers and cultural differences. But you also need to research the state of the market you’re moving into and the current trends, to understand what’s already on offer and how you stack up against the competition. You also need to identify key decision makers and stakeholders and build meaningful relationships by initiating conversations at the right time, in the right way.

There’s a lot to think about. But an experienced international public relations agency such as PR Superstar can support you every step of the way. We can help you establish where you fit in the market and how to communicate with foreign audiences and media. And we understand how to position your brand and make it stand out from the rest. We’ll also help you research, strategise and set up your campaigns to ensure the transition from UK company to global brand is as smooth as possible.

Things to Consider When it comes to International PR

Brown paper shopping bag

As we’ve established, you can’t just roll out the same old PR tricks you use in the UK when growing your brand abroad. Let’s take a look at some of the things your team need to consider.

Your brand positioning

You may be a big fish in the UK, but in the international marketplace you’ll be a tiny morsel. Foreign audiences will have little to no knowledge of your brand and what you have to offer. It’s easy for intentions to be misconstrued, and communication to be lost in translation, so think about your positioning carefully – and test it.

Create a cultural profile for each country you’re aiming to inhabit. Identify the most reputable news sources and their audiences and pick one or two simple messages to centre your consumer engagement around.

Repeat these messages over and over again, in your ads, news releases, point of sale pieces, sales brochures, billboards – everywhere. Frequency, focus and consistency are key to making your brand familiar to foreign consumers.

Language and culture

HSBC bank sign outside branch

The success of any international PR campaign relies on an appreciation of the intended market’s culture, language and nuances.

If your communication translates poorly, it’ll fall on deaf ears – or worse, cost you $10m.

This was the case for HSBC, who were forced to rebrand because of a translation error.

The British banking firm advertised its services with the slogan ‘assume nothing’, but the phrase translated in many foreign markets to ‘do nothing’. Not a great message from an organisation that relies on pro-active wealth management.

And it’s not just marketing and PR campaigns that get lost in translation. The same considerations must be taken into account when you’re being interviewed by the press or attending international events.

Be aware of differences in humour, metaphors and aphorisms across cultures and remember that politics and religion are sensitive topics in many countries.

Keep translation at the forefront of your mind and avoid idioms and slang when composing your PR materials.

The last thing you want to do is offend potential stakeholders by not doing your homework.

Want more tips on effective media relations? Read: Media Training Tips: The Only Guide You’ll Ever Need.

Research the market’s influencers

China town at night

When entering a new market, it’s important to know who the influencers are. You want to understand which publications hold the most clout, which forms of communication are likely to get you noticed, and who you’ll be competing with for column inches. It’ll be very different to the domestic market.

You need to understand what’s considered newsworthy, as what is relevant in the UK may be of no interest to the German media, for example. Research what is and isn’t acceptable and take locale-specific journalist preferences into account.

Finally, pay attention to when you reach out. Avoid public holidays and holy days. These differ from country to country, and region to region. Consider any other distractions that could make your outreach less impactful and work your PR around them.

International PR examples – the good, the bad and the ugly

With all the challenges and potential mishaps that come hand-in-hand with international public relations, it’s no surprise that there are plenty of examples out there – both great and not so great – from which we can learn some valuable lessons.

Let’s take a look at some of the best and worst, starting with some five-star international PR examples:

International PR Success Example 1 – The Domino’s Effect

Pizza cut into triangles

Pizza: It’s a simple dish. A delicious one, but simple, nonetheless. Domino’s used this to its advantage when taking the brand overseas.

To cater for the different taste preferences in their target markets, they customised the sauces and toppings to accommodate the tastes of the local consumer. For example, in India, the Paneer Makhani pizza consists of paneer marinated in a spicy sauce, with fresh capsicum toppings. This is a far cry from a British Cheese Feast.

The beauty of this campaign was its simplicity. Defining their core product as bread, sauce and cheese, and adapting the toppings for each country was a genius strategy. Customisation is a winning USP, after all.

International PR Success Example 2 – Golden arches shine bright

McDonald's on New York street

Global fast-food restaurant chain McDonald’s used a similar strategy to Domino’s, with strong branding and a standardised product adapted to fit local preferences. For example, in the US, regional specialities reign: there’s the lobster roll in New England, the bratwurst in Wisconsin, and biscuits and gravy in the South.

The Maccy D’s golden arches and colour scheme – instantly recognisable across the globe – were the foundations upon which their international expansion was built. From here the international public relations team could adapt advertisements and promotions to reflect cultural and societal expectations.

Today there are more than 37,000 McDonald’s restaurants across 120 countries. So, the strategy clearly paid off.

PR Takeaway

They key takeaway here is to make the most of what you already have.

Take stock of what you already offer and adapt it to fit the expectations of your new target market, wherever they may be.

And easily recognisable branding makes PR that little bit easier. If you have the perfect visual representation for your company, you have a solid foundation on which to build your international campaigns.

The focus can then be on location-specific messaging to promote products rather than a campaign to build your international brand from the very bottom.

Obviously not every business sells pizza, and most businesses don’t have the notoriety (or marketing budget) of McDonald’s. But even if your product is much more complex that bread dough and dairy, the principles here are transferable to any business.

We’ve looked at a couple of international PR successes – now, let’s balance it out with some international PR fails.

International PR Miss Example 1: Fingers! Really?

Bucket of KFC chicken and fries

KFC bit off more than they could chew in the late 1980s when they expanded into China. The company failed to realise that their well-known slogan, ‘Finger Lickin’ Good’, translated to ‘eat your fingers off‘ in their target audience’s native tongue. Ouch.

They survived the blunder, of course, with more than 5,000 KFC restaurants operating in China today. But still, it’s not a great start.

For more KFC public relations wins and losses, read: KFC PR: Finger-Lickin’ Good.

International PR Miss Example 2: We do what we do, everywhere

Starbuck store frontage

Starbucks is a prime example of a brand expecting the same formula to work everywhere, without changing anything.

The coffee giants made a move into Australia in 2000, expanding to 87 stores throughout the country by 2008. However, their expansion efforts fell flat as the company reported losses of $105m in the first seven years of trade down under.

The huge losses resulted from the company not taking the initiative to adjust their offerings to fit the native clientele. Their coffee menu was far too basic for Australian tastes, and they didn’t alter the physical appearance of their stores to fit in with their new surroundings.

They stuck to what they know, they did what they always do, and it didn’t pan out.

Yes, Starbucks still operates in Australia, but its target market is tourists, not Australians.

PR Takeaway

Most international PR fails can be avoided if you take the time to research the language, culture and history of the places you’re investing in.

Also, stay relevant. The only way to grow your brand in a new market is to remain a relevant force in the marketplace for as long as possible. Keep up with trends and go where you audience is. In other words, experiment with different social media platforms as they fall in and out of favour with your target market.

Arming yourself with knowledge will save you time, money and could prevent you from making a potentially disastrous business decision.

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