Communicating with a diverse, global audience is the messaging equivalent of walking a high wire while eating a bowl of noodles.
It can be difficult, messy, confusing and downright scary. Dangerous miscommunication lurks with every step, and there are endless opportunities to fall flat on your face—after a precipitous plunge.
How can you ensure that your news doesn’t confuse and that your multicultural messaging transcends rather than offends? Take these precautions before communicating with a global audience of employees.
Experts’ guidance for clear, cross-cultural comms
Malin Teles knows a thing or two about communicating to an international crowd. The communications manager at EGGS Design, who was born in Sweden but has been Brazil-based since 2011, recommends meticulously translating marching orders into colleagues’ preferred language, but also to amend copy as needed to ensure cultural clarity. She also offers these tips:
- Find common ground. There is neurological research showing that 70% of people are driven by “sameness.” That is, most people look for things in common and things to agree on in conversations and in messages; similarity motivates them. Find out what unites rather than separates different cultures, and focus on that, both in the message itself and in the phrasing.
- Be ready to adapt. Cultural differences are often underestimated, and it’s of great importance to have local knowledge, as well as local “ambassadors” and internal consultants who can advise on such cultural differences. Most companies are fairly good at doing this for their external, commercial communication, but it’s just as important in internal communications.
- Make internal culture a priority. In any organization, but perhaps even more so in one that operates in different countries or even on different continents, it’s vital to create and nourish a strong internal culture to maintain a sense of belonging. To create a strong culture, you must find common ground and a common understanding. Make it clear what the organization stands for—and what it doesn’t. More than values printed in employee handbooks, you must communicate the company’s purpose. Why do you—and the employees—do what you do, and how do you do it? Find ways of inviting them to participate in the formulation of this purpose, and use it in your communication. Come back to it often, and refer to it whenever possible.
Lou Hoffman is another communicator with serious international chops. His Hoffman Agency has offices across Europe, Asia and the U.S., and he’s seen his share of international PR doozies that can arise from basic cultural misunderstandings. He advises:
Rolling out a single set of global messages often doesn’t work. By the time you cut, twist and shape a message that works for all markets around the world, the message becomes watered down and loses any semblance of differentiation.
Instead, the HQ should be communicating message themes to target geographies, allowing the local teams to craft messages that fit their specific markets. Yes, this takes more time, but the exercise will generate messages that actually work in the local market. What a concept.
When working with clients, we’ll often play the McDonald’s card and discuss how the fast-food company communicates a high-level theme that works around the world, such as “Good-tasting food at a low cost in a clean environment.” But that theme doesn’t necessarily differentiate McDonald’s in each local market. It’s the foundation. Instead, McDonald’s localizes its menu in each market which does differentiate. Compare a McDonald’s menu in the U.S. with a menu in Indonesia.
Right, you’re not going to find Nasi Udak McD in Omaha.
Define target groups. Every good communications strategy begins with “know your audience.” Our company business strategy identifies three employee audiences for us; and anywhere in the world we communicate we link our messaging to these “3Gs.” Our “3Gs” start with global, ensuring we have cultural awareness and representation in communications and that our tone of voice is authentic and inclusive, then gender (gender identity and gender expression); and for the first time there are five generations in the workforce. Each generation communicates differently and has preferred technologies (or none at all). Multi-channel internal messaging is crucial today to ensuring all team members get the opportunity to consume the information they need, ranging from print to email, digital, internal and external social networks, company meetings, webcasts and podcasts.
Celebrate internal cultural awareness. You probably don’t need to look abroad to find an internal audience of international employees. In Hilti North America, for instance, we have team members from 60+ countries, all working together. We all bring our unique cultural differences and understanding to work, no matter where work is. To recognize the diversity of our global team members and engage them in something fun, we communicate actively during Cultural Awareness Week each May. Here in North America, we feature one country per day that week, with interesting facts, communicated through the intranet, our internal blog (Yammer) and posters. One native of each country blogs about her/his country. This year we also published an employee generated cookbook, with more than 60 recipes submitted, showing off team member cultures from around the world.
Regardless of nationality, location or culture, team members deserve to know the “why” behind organizational decisions that affect them and our customers. They rely on us as communicators – even if they never know who we are – to deliver authentic, accurate messages that fit with the corporate culture they experience day to day.
Don’t assume you understand each regional audience or that you even know the regions. (For example, you might think of employees in Spain as one audience, but if there are employees in Madrid and Barcelona, you have two audiences.)
Build a relationship with a trusted manager in each region. Solicit their reaction to messages, with a focus on context, to avoid preventable faux pas.
Don’t drive yourself nuts
You can’t be everything to everyone. There will always be someone, somewhere, who is determined to be offended or eager to misconstrue your words. Instead of fretting over that cantankerous cadre, focus on what you can control—namely the spirit, essence and intent of your communication.
Work to tailor your communication for different regions or offices—just as you would segment audiences for a marketing campaign—but don’t get bogged down with minutiae. (That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t double-check national or regional idioms.) Empathy, respect, clarity and brevity can help you overcome any linguistic or cultural barrier.