Lessons from managing international public relations agencies

A key challenge for headquarters communications teams is how to manage national public relations agencies. Few companies with really global business are able to manage their communications with total centralisations, and none do that successfully. The challenge for companies is to develop really effective co-ordination, not only on the technical level but also in terms of managing consistent stories.

In this podcast, PR agency veterans Gillie Tennant, an international public relations service leader, and Duncan Chapple, a B2B marketing communications consultant, discuss the challenges, especially for US companies reaching out into the EMEA market, and the different options for dealing with challenges.

The wide ranging discussion discusses a number of strategic issues and tactical experiences, including the choices between direct management of all agencies, choosing one EMEA agency office (typically the UK one) as the lead agency, or working with an international agency network.

A major challenge is to find the right sort of local agency: a strong local partner which has deep local roots but also is familiar enough with the challenge of international business that it’s able to connect to (and coach) in-country sales teams, source the essential local customer-as-hero story and offer strategic guidance to EMEA and global marketing communications.

Tennant and Chapple pull on their common experience working with Ominicom’s Brodeur Worldwide business (what is now Brodeur Partners and Ketchum Pleon) during the dot-com boom on brands like Cable & Wireless and Research in Motion to also go into the different types of local networks. They speak candidly about the reality of working with one-brand global agencies, where local offices are often very uneven in their experience and rootedness: a network is only as strong as the weakest agency in the network. They discuss the new opportunities for working with more flexible networks, in which best-in-country agencies form a common network similarly strong agencies. These strong affiliate groups can develop stronger links because of the greater precision arising from strong national offices.

Agency groups also have the advantage of flexibility that they can have two agencies in some countries, allowing client conflicts and personality incompatibilities to be avoided. Agency groups can replace one national agency with another when necessary, when clients of one-brand agencies cannot replace an ineffective local PR agency office: they need to either drop the whole global agency, or pay for a second, effective agency alongside the incumbent.

They also discuss how one-brand agencies might have less integration, in terms of collaboration and process, than a strongly-allied group of independent agencies: it really is a choice where the buyer must beware.

The podcast explains that the organisational differences flow also from cross-cultural differences in each national culture. The scale of differences requires an open mind and a tolerance for difference in both national cultures and the media landscape in each country.

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