Working with Hispanic media pros? Go beyond mere translation

Delivering a message in Spanish is not enough. Consider the idioms in more than 20 nations, not to mention nonverbal cues, such as gestures and colors. Here’s insight into the crucial nuances.

Pitching Hispanic media

News reports made by and for Hispanic Americans are a key part of the U.S. media landscape.

Spanish-language media outlets often fare better in the ratings and outperform their English-language counterparts in major markets. According to the Pew Research Center, most Hispanics see these news sources—delivering news in Spanish—as more credible, accurate and fair than mainstream options.

Such trends fuel the need for a cadre of experts who can serve as spokespersons and brand ambassadors.

What are the keys to spokesperson success in the U.S. Hispanic market? How do you prepare? Is having a Spanish-speaking representative a necessity for successful Hispanic media relations?

It starts with traditional media training to control the brand story across multiple platforms. It’s complex enough in the mainstream market, but in another language and nuanced cultural framework, spokesperson training can seem daunting.

Malapropisms and poor syntax can become cultural bugaboos. One cautionary tale from the early days of U.S. Hispanic marketing involves an airline promoting its new business-class leather seats by inviting passengers to fly en cuero, unaware that it means naked in colloquial Spanish.

Even the benign classic “Got milk?” campaign took a misstep when its creators learned that the literal translation, ¿Tienes leche?, was a double entendre for lactating women.

Unintended missteps

Hispanics are prone to trust someone speaking in our language, even if imperfect, because it shows good intentions—but good intentions can misfire.

Take New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio, who rallied striking workers at Miami International Airport this summer. He chanted, “Hasta la victoria, siempre” (“Onward to victory, always”), the revolutionary slogan coined by Che Guevara, who is reviled by Cuban exiles. De Blasio, 2020 presidential candidate, was lambasted by national and local media outlets.

There are differences between Hispanic journalists and their general market counterparts. Spanish-language interviews tend to be more polite and longer in format. Most Hispanic reporters working in the U.S. were trained abroad and often hold worldviews shaped by their immigrant experiences, versus reporters who have spent their entire lives in this country.

Though English is the main language of the business world, one cannot assume that a reporter speaks or writes it with proficiency. Therefore, it’s good practice to provide the interviewer, reporter, writer or producer with detailed written information in Spanish to ensure accuracy.

Even if your campaign has culturally savvy messaging and an insider’s knowledge of Hispanic news media, the messenger may not be the right fit. The obvious spokesperson choice would be a Hispanic, or an executive with market responsibility who speaks the language, right? Not necessarily.

As in the general market, not every executive has the skills to handle the press effectively, yet companies often take it as a given that Spanish-speaking skills are enough.

Beyond linguistic gaffes

Even if the theoretical part of a media readiness module is in English, trainers agree that practice sessions are better in both languages and in-culture. Nonverbal communication—body language, wardrobe and attire, mannerisms and vocal tonality—are factors, too.

Be aware of the significance of colors, as they could convey unwitting association with historical events and political movements. Keep in mind that Hispanics hail from more than 20 countries with different cultural traditions, dialects and customs.

Communicators must stay ahead of trends and incorporate Spanish-language media readiness into their toolboxes. Still, no single media training approach, regardless of language, can be the magic bullet, because you must respond to ever-changing real-world situations and challenges.

The organizations that work continually to improve their effectiveness in speaking to Hispanic audiences will reap the greatest rewards.

In a word, the secret is practicar.

Tips for successful Hispanic media interviews

Here’s guidance for bridging linguistic and cultural gaps”

1. Follow the golden rules of media relations: Be prepared, be concise, be honest.

2. Hispanic audiences are as different as they are similar. Avoid cookie-cutter solutions.

3. Train in English; practice in both English and Spanish.

4. Select spokespersons for their ability to convey messages and connect with audiences. Being Hispanic and speaking Spanish are not automatic qualifications.

5. Impeccable Spanish is preferred, but weaker language skills, combined with honest effort are second best. Always watch and listen for culturally charged phrases and slogans.

6. Be alert to unfavorable nonverbal cues: body language, wardrobe, colors, and mannerisms.

7. Be cautious with humor and sarcasm that might get lost in translation or could offend.

8. Seek coaching from Hispanic media trainers and public relations professionals.

9. Know the media outlets, the reporters, and what stories they cover—and how.

10. Back up oral statements with reference materials written in Spanish to make the reporter’s job easier.

Rosemary Ravinal is founder and chief trainer at RMR Communications Consulting.

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