After spending the early part of her career as a communicator with the United Nations and the U.S. Treasury Department, Kara Alaimo witnessed glaring disconnects between organizations and people communicating across different cultures. Her new book, “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to practice global public relations and strategic communication,” seeks to shed some light on those differences and help people communicate more effectively. The book is built on interviews with senior communications professionals from 31 different countries and divides the globe into 10 distinct cultural units. Alaimo will visit Grand Valley State University as part of its APR Speakers Series on Feb. 13 to discuss her research and book. Alaimo spoke with MiBiz prior to the event about how businesses should prepare to communicate across borders in an increasingly globalized and hostile world.
What was the impetus for your book?
Basically this is the book I wish I had when I was practicing global public relations at the United Nations and in the Obama administration because I found that there just wasn’t a resource that explained how to adapt your business practices and your messages and strategies for different countries and cultures.
What are some of the strategies you discovered while researching your book?
Here in the U.S., if I were to do a media interview and a reporter asked a question I didn’t like and I became visibly angry at the reporter, people would think that I was unhinged. In the Arab world, the exact opposite is true. If you’re asked an emotional question and you don’t react emotionally to the reporter, people will not trust you.
Global public relations isn’t anything new, but is it becoming a more important focus area for businesses?
Definitely. One of the things that shocked me most when I did these interviews was that even to this day they’ll see huge Fortune 100 companies think they can use the same communication strategies universally around the globe. What works in the United States often won’t work in Canada, let alone in Nigeria or Russia. I was fairly astonished about the lack of adaptation that’s happening now, but also the lack of knowledge.
How do differences in culture and communication play out when companies face scandals?
What you find is there’s a history of cultures that have been influenced by Confucianism — China, Japan and Korea — to avoid what scholars call risky communication. In Confucian tradition, people are taught from a very young age that talking about a problem makes the problem worse. So the best thing to do if you have a problem is to not tell anyone. Obviously, we can’t know for sure what happens in particular companies, but I look at companies like Takata, the Japanese airbag manufacturer that knew there was a problem and covered it up for 15 years. You have to wonder whether some of these cultural traditions came into play.
How will global public relations dynamics change under the Trump administration?
I, for the first time in my career, have received requests to counsel corporate executives on how to prepare in case they are attacked by Donald Trump on Twitter. I also think a lot of the forces that we saw in the 2016 presidential election are going to leave businesses vulnerable.
We saw the hackings of Democratic operatives. Every company in the world is now vulnerable to hackers. I recently did a study of Anonymous and other hackers and I learned that not in the case of Anonymous, but other hacker groups will often attack a company simply because they can — for laughs. They call it ‘lulz.’ Every company needs to be worried about this.
How will the recent prevalence of fake news affect international communications?
We saw that politicians were really vulnerable in the 2016 presidential election, but since then there was the incident at the pizza shop in Washington, D.C. where a gunman showed up after reading fake news. Pepsi has been the victim of fake news. Chobani has been the victim of fake news on an Alt-Right website.
What can companies do to protect themselves from these threats?
Every business in America right now should be coming up with plans and doing drills for how they’re going to respond if they are targeted by Donald Trump on Twitter, if they’re the victim of fake news (or) if they’re hacked. These aren’t technology solutions, these are public relations and reputational solutions.
What happens to a company that finds itself being attacked by President Trump?
I think it really depends on the nature of the allegation. What’s different here is just the magnitude of pressure that the President of the United States can bring to bear on a company. If a small activist group complains to a company, they might decide they could take the reputational hit and move forward with an operational decision. But when the President of the United States is going to highlight this issue to the world, they may decide they actually need to cave and that it’s not worth the reputational cost.
What about a hack?
It’s obvious, but I think that companies and executives need to be really careful about what they put in writing these days. Sensitive decisions and sensitive conversations should happen in person or by phone, not electronically.