International PR Tip No. 6 – Questions you should ask about your PR organization

One of the key challenges in managing international PR is how to organize internal and external resources and processes. More often than not, the related structure has not been built from scratch in a planned approach, but rather evolved organically over the years, impacted by acquisitions, mergers and divestments, by restructurings and strategy changes, and often quite independently and disconnectedly across business sectors, regions and markets.

That is why, typically, someone taking on an international responsibility will find a plethora of diverging solutions, often ranging from larger teams of PR professionals in one location, to Assistants in the marketing or HR departments in others, trying to drive whatever they believe is good PR (or sometimes trying to avoid it).

A first step of course is analyzing the existing setup, before drafting a new one. So here’s nine questions you should ask yourself when inheriting – or already running – an international PR organization:

1. What are the local skill sets?
It is quite common to have different levels of people, in different positions, running PR in different markets. All the more important is it to understand the level of PR skills that are available, even if it is ‘only’ for leading a PR agency locally; and it will be important to ensure a basic level of common understanding of how PR works and what needs to be done. An assessment should lead to concrete steps to ensure a homogeneous base level is achieved – for example through internal or external training programs, individual coaching, or other appropriate means.

2. What are the reporting lines?
Staff responsibility is an essential asset in steering an organization. Yet rarely do all people who are involved in PR activities, in different countries, actually report into central PR. This should not be a major problem, as long as central PR can claim a ‘dotted line’ reporting, which means that PR-related activities of a person who is otherwise based in another department (and charged with other tasks there), need to be cleared with central PR. Within such a matrix set-up, however, everyone with dotted lines to PR should ideally at least be based in the same kind of department everywhere. Things get even more complicated if one has to deal with dotted-line staff based in marketing in one place, in HR in another, and in production management in a third one.

3. What infrastructure is available?
Regular (and managed) sharing and exchange are crucial elements not only of building an international team internally, but also of creating a consistent way of communicating with the outside world. Is an intranet platform available that hosts all current materials, provides templates, and maybe even hints & tips for the less experienced local communicators? A central platform, accessible to all team members, is indispensible; should an intranet be lacking, external solutions are available free of charge to serve basic needs, such as Yahoo or Google Groups or similar applications in social networks like e.g. LinkedIn.

4. Does everyone know each other?
As we all know, at the end of the day, an organization is people working with people, individuals engaging with individuals. Personal encounter, still, is an important prerequisite for making teams function together. Does the team communicate regularly, for example in phone/video conferences? Are there physical meetings? Yes it’s an investment to get people together, but the outcome in terms of motivation, drive and collaboration will always provide great return.

5. How many suppliers are out there?
Given the relative independence across the usual loosely-linked set-ups, it frequently happens that similar tasks are delivered by several suppliers several times in different places. Think of printing, graphic work, media contact management software, monitoring services… Consolidating those across markets will often bring about significant savings (money that can be used instead to do better PR), enhance consistency – and, of course, provide more central control.

6. What is the agency set-up?
How many agencies are used across the different markets? How do they cooperate, or do they cooperate at all? What were the criteria of electing them, who has made that selection – and who is signing their offers and bills? If an agency network has been appointed – can they prove real, tangible advantages versus a local best practice approach; where exactly do they create efficiencies and deliver savings? Are there consistent evaluation criteria (and, of course, targets) set for agencies across markets, and are those being tracked? It is safe to say that an international agency set-up always provides room for improvement in terms of cooperation, quality and value for money.

7. Who is setting the budgets?
Owning budgets means owning the business. As long as local management decides on PR spendings, there’s always a risk they will put it on short-term sales-supporting initiatives (which often, in fact, means funneling so-called PR funds into straightforward marketing) rather than longer-term reputation building. It is worth fighting for budget ownership as this is one of the key triggers of success. If complete ownership isn’t possible (at least in the short term), there should at least be a joint central-local process for setting priorities and defining a set of mandatory, strategic cross-country initiatives.

8. What are the approval procedures?
While budget control is the central means of steering the type of activities driven, approval rights are the central means of ensuring quality and consistency in content. While central PR might – depending on the scope of the organization – not necessarily be able to approve every single tool (like a press release) before it goes public, it should at least strive to act as an approver to as many of them as possible (and certainly every single one that is used in more than one local market), and otherwise have skilled trustees on a second level to do so.

9. Is there a strategy in place?
Is there an overarching strategy that each PR representative in any given market could recite in three sentences? Have general, multi-country initiatives been developed that are putting this strategy into action? Is there a mechanism to check individual local activities against the strategic framework? It is surprising how often the simple question of ‘what is your overarching PR strategy’ cannot be answered (which should actually be so simple: the New York Observer a while ago noted that Goldman Sachs’ PR Strategy for the past months had been “a stiffly extended middle finger, waved in the air for all to see”). Yet, clearly, without a defined strategy, there can’t be direction. So in such case, it might be time to sit down and create one before doing anything else.

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