The challenge of diversity

Weber Shandwick’s Tim Sutton delivered the keynote address at the Corporate Affairs Forum where he examined the challenges of cross-border public affairs and communications

No discussion of the challenge of cross-border diversity in our Asia Pacific region can really start without trying to work out what is happening to diversity globally.

A good introduction to my theme is the story, apocryphal no doubt, of the three tailors who all operated on the same little street in Hong Kong where I live. They were fiercely competitive with each other and vied intensely and loudly for customers.

One day, the first tailor took a major marketing initiative by placing a bold banner on the front of his shop which read, “By far the best tailor in Hong Kong!” Undeterred, the second tailor quickly produced an even bigger banner with an even bolder slogan in front of his shop. This one read, “By far the best tailor in Asia.”  The third tailor thought about it for a while and then put a quite modest sign in front of his shop. It said, “By far the best tailor in this street.”  I leave it to you to work out which tailor might have attracted the most customers.

As this story suggests, any concept of globalisation of marketing, public relations and public affairs  which attempts to airbrush out the importance of  national, regional and local dynamics is not going to take us very far in our understanding – or our capability.  Nor, with due acknowledgement for the major progress it represented at the time, is it enough anymore to rely on the watchwords of HSBC and others that one should “Think Global; Act Local.”  Nor even – sadly – as my colleague found in a bar in Australia, a slogan saying, “Think Global; Drink Local,” although it may help us all along the way.

Putting the challenge another way, ”What happens when a supposedly irresistible force – globalisation – meets an immovable object – national and local culture and custom?” I stole and adapted that question, by the way, from one that appeared in the Oxford University Entrance Exam in the 1970s. A further question, I recall, was, “What is a calculated risk?” to which one bright spark smartly provided a two word answer: “This is,” and was admitted, launching a bright and distinguished academic career.  This may help explain some of the crisis in intellectual thinking in the West which has contributed to the financial disasters of recent times.

Globalisation and brands

Let me start by talking about the idea of globalisation of companies and brands, without which many of us would be unlikely to be sitting here today.  There is no doubt that just as The Depression, The Cold War, and The Space Age were all used to describe different periods of recent history, so to does The Era of Globalisation seem to encapsulate the world’s political, economic and cultural landscape of today.

These are the facts:  people around the world are more connected and interconnected to each other today than ever before. Information and money flow around the world more quickly than ever before.  Goods and services produced in one part of the world can be found in almost any other part of the world. The breadth and depth of international communication flows increase almost every single year.

Yet as the book of Ecclesiastes says in the Bible, “There is nothing new under the sun”. Surprisingly, globalisation is not as recent a concept as we sometimes like to think.

Consider for a moment that the Roman Empire, at its largest reach in the second century AD, extended from Scotland in the north to Tunisia and Egypt in the south; and from Portugal in the west to Turkey in the east.  Within that large region, in theory at least, there was one main currency, one banking system, one legal system, one official language used for all matters of state and business and one trading system.

I say in theory. Yet use your imagination to consider the challenge of a Roman public affairs consultant of the day trying to work out the challenges of cross-border for his clients.  No wonder then, that there were stories from time to time of revolts and local street riots, protesting against the imposition of Roman trading and cultural standards on local life.  Not that much different from a meeting of the World Trade Organization today.

And since the Romans, throughout history, there have always been institutions which defined themselves internationally rather than locally or nationally. The Catholic Church and Islam, for instance, being two classic examples.

In considering the reality of PR and issues management, and aspiring to address the needs of a large multi-country and multi-culture region like Asia, it does well to bear in mind always that cross border communications is by its nature complex, not simple.

I try and remind my clients that, in spite of the fact that companies like mine have most of the right dots on the right parts of the map (and hopefully the experience to back up those networks), it remains true that cross-border communications are always hugely effortful, never effortless.

While for sure, there are many case studies and experiences, dos and don’ts that we can wisely learn from projects that have gone before, there is a sense in which each brief is shockingly new and uniquely different. There is no standard template at the push of a button. And there is no substitute for thoughtful strategy and creativity, time and time again.

The tension and balance between the Power of International and the Power of Local is an old theme. One lesson is clear: that global and local always co-exist, have always been confusingly intertwined and always will be.

In today’s modern world, the origins of globalisation lay initially in the deliberate strengthening of international institutions in the collapsed global order at the end of World War Two. But above all, the biggest catalyst of all for globalisation has been technology. It is technology which has driven transformation, not only most obviously because of the internet, but also through the broader growth in telecommunications capability, in new digital media, in cheaper travel for the masses and last but not least, in its facilitation of the free movement of trade and financial capital upon which this world depends.

If the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century was the story (a sometimes tragic story) of the domination of the national state and nationalist-focused ideologies, the last 75 years have seen the development of a new key global player: The Multinational Organisation or, as some experts prefer to say more accurately and neutrally, The Transnational Organisation.

Transnationals are different. They may be domiciled within a particular country; they may even carry strong cultural associations from that home country. Coca-Cola, for instance, has long been regarded as American as, well, as apple pie. The historic brand essence of a BMW or Peugeot was quintessentially German or French.  But increasingly, the national country of origin is becoming less central to the DNA of these organisations.

They act internationally. They have operations all around the world. They try to think internationally. Their intellectual property may sit in 20 different countries. And their culture becomes, each year that goes by, more truly global, not national or local.

Of course, talk about transnationals and people usually automatically leads to an assumption that we are talking about the big multinational businesses: the Coca-Cola’s, Microsoft’s, IBM’s, Nokia’s, BP’s, Sony’s to name just a few examples. But one of the key points about understanding the globalisation of our profession is that when we are talking about the new dominance of transnationals, we aren’t just referring to large corporations, but to many other types of global players, too.

Transnationals may be political such as the European Commission, ASEAN, UNICEF, or the World Health Organization; they might be campaigning NGOs such as Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth; they might be economic such as the IMF and World Bank; they might be cultural such as CNN, BBC World and Al Jazeera; they might be sporting such as the Olympic movement and FIFA. And, of course, they may be ideological and evangelising in intent such as the Vatican or some parts of the global Islamic movement.

What these disparate organisations and movements share, however else they wildly differ otherwise in their goals and their values, is their willingness and ability to think and to act primarily on a global or regional basis, rather than solely on a national basis. Of course this is not a national government-free world once dreamed of by the anarchists. National governments still matter. But the interesting thing about these organisations, or at least their full time secretariats, is that they acquire a life which often goes well beyond the countries where they may be based or the governments that may be funding them.

The fact is that many of the key players in this world are no longer capable of being understood solely within the confines of traditional national state boundaries. It’s not just that they act internationally,   but that they act supra-nationally or even trans-nationally. That is to say their psychology, their thinking and even their cultures are becoming truly global. As we know, this offers us a huge opportunity. But also, given that so many of our own corporate structures remain (for good command control reasons) obstinately national-market based, it presents a huge challenge.


The term globalisation, when used today, most simply refers to the growing interdependence and interconnectedness of the world, whether political, military, economic or technological.

Even people who disagree about whether globalisation is a good or bad thing can normally agree on this.

That’s true whether the issue is about the collapse of financial markets, trade barriers, privacy on the internet, climate change or the threat of a new flu virus.  Like it or lump it, no man and no woman is an island. And we have never understood so keenly as now that we are all on the same fragile planet.

But there is a second pervasive idea which is sometimes confusingly interlinked with this interconnectedness. It is the idea that globalisation means not just international connectedness, but also international harmonisation. This notion holds that globalisation is inevitably moving towards uniformity and sameness in consumer behaviours, tastes, cultures and personalities.

According to this view, maybe over a period of some decades, whether we live in Malaysia or Mauritius, Belgium or Bolivia, we will all eventually act in the same kind of way, consume the same kind of products, and have the same global cultural reference points. Local differences, so this argument runs, will wither away over time as an inevitable result of globalisation.

For those of us who travel a lot around cities in Asia and beyond, this argument might appear, at first, superficially persuasive. After all, until distracted by other matters, Tiger Woods could be seen across billboards in every major airport in the world, showing what a great management consultant he was for Accenture.
And take the night skyline of any major world city, whether in the US or Europe or Asia Pacific, and the familiar advertising neon signs for a Samsung, Kodak or a Panasonic seem to indicate a world which is increasingly familiar and homogenous. A world in which the language and symbolism of global brands form a new and far more effective universal language than Esperanto ever could.

It is certainly true that, nearly the world over, people can be seen working on Microsoft Office, drinking a Coca-Cola, taking their kids to McDonald’s, tapping into Google (well that was true not long ago) or clutching an iPhone or Nokia smart phone. Does that mean that people around the world are, to avoid the marketing jargon, all becoming the same? Does it mean that national, regional and local differences are all slowly melting away into a harmonious and uniform global consumer market place?

Well I am skeptical. Consider the strange paradox that, in this supposed smoothly harmonising world, there have never been so many separatist political movements, whether peaceful or violent, as there are today. In my own home continent of Europe alone, there are separatist movements, or at least sympathies, in Scotland and Wales, in Corsica, in Brittany, in the Italian North, in Sardinia, in Sicily, in Belgium, in the Basque and Catalonian regions of Spain.
Worldwide, there are local autonomy movements not only in the Middle East and Sri Lanka but also in India, in Mauritius, in Indonesia, in Thailand, in China, in Mexico, in Kurdistan and in South Georgia to name just a very few.

Of course these movements may be politically mainstream or more marginal. But all around the world, there has never been such great interest in, and support for, movements which express local identity, local decision making, local language and local community – even if that expression in many cases remains peaceable, primarily cultural and within the accepted boundaries of a national state, rather than politically-oriented.

Consider too the revival of fierce religious allegiances and the strange and stubborn persistence of languages and dialects around the world. According to The New York Times, there remain 6,912 languages in the world.  Some people lament the passing of many languages. They may be right, but the bigger wonder to me is that so many remain obstinately in place.

I always tell my good American friends that there is no such thing as an English accent. The name English, I say, should give them a big clue!  Yet the last laugh is on me.  Studies in England have suggested that some 75 years after the BBC started broadcasting the Queen’s English from Alexandra Palace in London, a noticeable change in dialect and use of vocabulary can be still be detected roughly every 15 to 20 miles in England!

Studies of the integration of immigrants into the United States have shown the persistence of community culture, beliefs, habits, loyalties, belonging and allegiance, generations after their ancestors’ initial arrival. The first loyalty of most is to the Stars and Stripes and the United States, but that coexists with a continued rich diversity of cultural community and customs.

Back in Europe, it seems to me that that the EU has hardly made the French less French, the Germans less German or the British less British.
Even the internet itself, the great driver (according to some) of the globalisation and harmonisation process, is also ironically the driver and protector of diversity and special interests.  The beekeeper in the south of Spain may now commune weekly (perhaps it should be called ‘buzz’ weekly?) with other beekeepers around the world. A sufferer of a rare medical condition in India might find comfort and help from fellow sufferers on the other side of the globe.

Protecting identity

Not only that. The internet also drives and protects the sense of local community and local belonging or local custom in a way that was never possible before. I have yet to find a reliable measure of how much internet traffic is locally generated and locally exchanged.  But it must be huge: from the fans of a sports team who gather online to debate the coach’s terrible decisions on the field last weekend, to the local real estate hunter looking for a new apartment or house. In these cases, far from harmonising consumers around the world, the internet serves to reinforce and celebrate local life, local customs and local pride. The messages are, “This is the way we are. These are the things that make us unique and that we enjoy. And this is how we do things round here.”

But to me, the biggest evidence of all that globalisation does not lead to bland uniformity comes from our many global clients at Weber Shandwick.  Because if it did, and if it worked, it would make a lot of sense to do it.  After all, wouldn’t it be nice and simple if one could use the same strategic and creative execution for a PR campaign in Pittsburgh, Prague and Phnom Penh? Not just simple, but a good deal less expensive too. After all, in this fantasy world, one would be able to not only strategise centrally but also execute every single aspect of the program from one single location. Some may dream, but I’m afraid that this is not the reality of the world.

And this brings us to the crux of the matter. Clients will often come for help to firms like ours because they prize brand control and consistency. When your brands are your largest protectable asset, then it is not surprising that you want to control how they behave in different markets around the world, to ensure that they remain faithful to their brand promise and to the value chain which underpins them.  In a Web 2.0 environment, companies have never felt so vulnerable to the threat that bad things which might happen in one market to a brand can rapidly become toxic in adjoining markets, or at worst, round the world.

Yet, at the same time (and this is the Catch-22 for all of us), smart global marketers also understand only too well that these same brands have to be anchored authentically in local markets, local cultures, local consumer behaviours.

They have to belong and deliver emotional and cultural empathy to consumers far away from their home market. Symbolic and semiotic reference connection points for a brand, in the relationship with consumers, that might be taken as read at home may be puzzling, mysterious or even downright harmful on the other side of the world. Or even, dare one say, in adjoining countries.

And add to that, of course, the minimal threshold requirement to be legal, compliant and a good citizen in political economies and legal jurisdictions which may vary wildly from one side of a national border to the next.
Am I depressing those of you working on cross-border issues across the Asia Pacific region by describing the enormous challenge of our task? Well let’s consider this enormous challenging and baffling region of ours.

It may make sense for the organisation ‘map makers’ sitting a metaphorical 30,000 feet up in the boardrooms of major multinationals in the US and Europe to parcel together a quarter of the world’s land area into a convenient region called Asia Pacific and then give jobs to the like of you and me to make sense of it. But when you are actually sitting here, whether ‘here’ is Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai or Sydney, it can seem a lot more daunting and confusing at ground level. The horizon to horizon visibility at 30,000 feet up is soon obscured on the ground.

For one thing, as those who sit on airplanes as much as we do know, there is the sheer scale and size of it.  Wikipedia starts off by helpfully explaining to us that “Asia Pacific is the part of the world in or near the Western Pacific Ocean, including much of East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Oceania.”  So far so good.  But then it proceeds to muddy the waters somewhat:  “Sometimes,” it continues, “The term Asia Pacific includes South Asia, though India and her neighbours are on the Indian Ocean rather than the Pacific Ocean.”  And then moves into some surreal confusion:  “The term may also include Russia (on the North Pacific) and countries in North and South America which are on the coast of the Eastern Pacific Ocean.”

Finally poor Wikipedia (or more accurately one of its contributors) ends up concluding rather lamely that, “Asia Pacific is a rather imprecise geographical descriptor.” So there you have it. Your area of responsibility has just been expanded to include a whole new set of markets in North and Latin America that you didn’t even know were yours.

Different systems

But we all know the diversity of Asia is not just about its frightening size and scale – some 3,000 miles across and 5,000 plus miles from top to bottom. Rather, it is a patchwork quilt comprised of vastly differing political systems and socio ethnic cultures, traditions and customs. It is a fact that it is far easier to list the fundamental differences between, say, India and Japan or China and Thailand, than to articulate what they might share in common.

But the challenge for us in Asia Pacific is even greater than that. In the West, globalisation has served to undermine at least partly the concept of the supremely powerful sovereign national state and the associated nationalist ideologies which dominated the 19th and 20th centuries, in favour of cooperation via more recent international and transnational institutions.

But in Asia, it is clear that the mainly younger nations which make up the region are far from being as ready or as willing to concede ground. Just the opposite, in fact. Many are only just now beginning to flex their muscles in the assertion of their powers and their rights on the international stage.  At its least healthy, this is reflected in growing alarming territorial disputes over ownership of land, sea and natural resources. At its healthier, it is reflected in the growing voice which Asian countries are rightly demanding in international institutions as befits their rising political and economic power.

None of this makes it any easier for those of us whose job it is to try and drive unity of purpose and consistency of execution across so many of the markets in this region.

But maybe this is over intellectualising the difficulties.  Asian markets are glued together because of their shared interest in the growing economic and political power of the region.   Their access to enormous capital with which they are able to invest in major infrastructure projects (who can happily revisit their home airports back in the US and Europe?); the confidence with which they regard the enabling mission and empowerment of governments; the drive of their dynamic entrepreneurship and their huge appetite for more sophisticated, branded goods all point to a tectonic shift taking place in the world and forms a bond between these Asian markets.

And if they are linked by their opportunities, they are also linked by their shared challenges –  the need for growing economic power to drive up still extremely low per capita incomes; the challenges they face in balancing the needs of sophisticated metro elites with still impoverished agrarian regions; their wish, in many cases, to preserve local tradition and custom while enjoying the fruits of technological based consumer development.

And last but not least, we all know that whatever the wide differences in their political systems, nearly all Asian countries, with the exception for the moment of North Korea and Myanmar, are  showing evidence of a much greater pluralism in their politics and their societies.  This pluralism is reflected in the complex relationships and battles for influence and power between different stakeholder groups in each of these countries.

That may be a challenging game. But at least it’s a game the rules of which we either understand already or can quickly learn.

So here we are in Asia which is both divided and linked together. Which makes no sense and makes every sense.   And we sit in Hong Kong or Singapore and a handful of other so called ‘hub cities,’ trying to make sense of what cross-border communications might possibly mean and involve for our companies.

One thing we learn quickly: that a military model of command is not much use here. We can strut around and make impressive orders all that we like, it’s not going to get us very far. Like Tolstoy’s General Kutuzov at the Battle of Borodino in War and Peace, we “triumph over Napoleon” not necessarily by melodramatic, strategic battle plans and loud commands, but by cautiously feeling and smelling our way through each day, working out quietly what works and what doesn’t work. A lot less commanding, a lot more persuading, encouraging, cajoling, influencing. Even once a year: begging.

I don’t know what your own preferred metaphor might be for the job that you do. But to me my role is less a general, more a music conductor.  The woodwind instruments might be a bit scratchy here and there, the violins slightly out of tune and the percussion struggling to keep to time. But if I can help guide the orchestra to play something that still sounds something recognisably and pleasantly like Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, I feel I am making some progress.

So what of the future? To me, there are three critical challenges that we face if this market is truly to develop and mature in the way we wish it to.

First there is the question of agreed standards across the region for what we do. I include ethical standards for sure; but also standards of good practice, professionalism and accountability and measurement.

For instance, my own company Weber Shandwick has very recently combined with seven of our competitors – Burson-Marsteller, Edelman, GolinHarris, Hill and Knowlton, Ogilvy, Ruder Finn, and Text100 – to announce an agreed code of business conduct which will govern our operations in China. It’s a small step but an important one.

If agencies and their clients alike can work together in coming months and years, through forums like this one, to establish what we can agree is best conduct and best practice, that raises the reputation and respect of our entire industry. Of course, we can rely on good models from the US and Europe which will serve us well. But let’s remember that whatever we agree upon needs to be authentically rooted in our region. It can’t just be copied from other places in the world.

Second, we all know that the biggest elephant not only in this room but many other rooms throughout our huge region is talent. We have some wonderful talent in our firm and so of course do some of our competitors. But let me be totally candid. We simply don’t have enough. And where we do have it, it is neither broad enough, nor deep enough. And dare I say it: neither do our clients. We all know that recruitment and retention are enormous challenges in Asia, but I would go further to say that the lack of talent in a market which is demand rich is by far the biggest constraint on businesses like mine. And it is also a constraint on the ability of our clients to achieve the kind of corporate and public affairs outcomes that they wish to see.

Investing in change

Unless we work together to resolve this issue by investing in training and thinking more imaginatively about how we can attract and retain people who see PR and public affairs as a career worth committing to, then we will continue to struggle to realise the potential of this region. And for all the talk of Asia’s boom, let me remind you that the regional income from Asia for a PR/PA firm like mine is usually no more than around 15% of the global total.

Third, and this is even more challenging given the deficit in talent that I have described, we need to ensure that our talent is authentically-rooted in the societies and cultures in which it operates. Because just as the diversity of Asia is fundamental to understanding cross border communications, the keys to developing our capability lie in the intelligent, authentic diversity we ourselves are able to bring to the table.

Yes, we have to maintain strong international networks and understand how to manage multi-market programs from stable and coherent hubs such as Singapore and Hong Kong in which we know we are more likely to find the kind of experience we need (much of it, we know, staffed by expatriates). But in order for our local and regional influence to be effective, we must go beyond satellite offices and fly-in meetings. We must develop local roots, understanding our markets authentically from both the inside and out.

At Weber Shandwick, while far from perfect, and with much still to do, we are absolutely committed to the goal of the authenticity of our senior management team and staff within each Asian market. Certainly, there is still plenty of room for skilled and experienced expatriates to come to the region. Or at least I have a selfish interest in hoping so for a little bit longer yet. But far too many agencies, and again dare I say it – their clients, have made the mistake of establishing local senior management teams dominated entirely by Western folk.

I am not focusing on this as a moral issue. I take it as read that everyone believes in free opportunity in our operations in Asia, regardless of ethnic background, religion or creed, gender, sexuality or physical ability.

Rather I want to focus on the fact that a strategy which does not reflect the true diversity of our region is both unwise and plain bad business.

By empowering a team built on diversity and developing the talent of our people in Asia, at the most senior as well as more junior levels, we can unlock the full potential of this exciting market.  And as long public affairs practices in Asia are motivated and driven solely by the “what works in the west” ethos, Asia’s ability to realise its full potential will remain incomplete.

Tim Sutton is the chairman of Weber Shandwick in Asia Pacific. This article is based on his speech at the 2010 PublicAffairsAsia Corporate Affairs Forum

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