Review : International Communications Strategy - Silvia Cambié and Yang-May Ooi
The authors of this important new book are both deracinées - Silvia is an Italian who studied in Austria and then went to work in Czechoslovakia and Brussels before moving to London. Her co-author, Yang-May is Malaysian-Chinese and now resident in the UK.
The sub-title to their book is Developments in cross-cultural communications, PR and social media. While merely living and working abroad does not naturally make you an expert in cultural differences, both of the authors have strong track records as professional communicators: Cambié is on the only European on the IABC (International Association of Business Communicators) and has reported on the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe for British and German newspapers, while Yang-May is an early adopter of social media who lectures regularly on Web 2.0 as well as being the successful author of legal thrillers.
But what sets this book apart from many that we review is that it is not based on a single idea. Unlike Gladwell's Outliers or Anderson's Long Tail, this is not a book with a clever central idea that the author has spun out to 200 pages. International Communications Strategy is certainly about an idea - Globalization 3.0 - but they authors do not set out to claim that they have invented the concept.
What you will find in this book of two halves is a feast of case studies that build an inescapable argument. Cambié has unearthed stories from Brazil to China, from India to Slovakia that show how people are developing new ways of talking and inter-acting that are not aping the West but are creating powerful new models for all professional communicators to study and adapt.
Take for instance what happened to the Taj Hotels owned by the Tata Group in India, one of the world's super-multinationals that recently bought the UK luxury car manufacturer Jaguar with some of its loose change. In 2007 the Taj Hotel Group approached the American hotel chain Orient Express with a view to building a business alliance. Cambié takes up the story:
"Orient Express refused by saying that any association with a predominantly domestic Indian brand would affect the value of its luxury brand. The Indian group fought back demanding and apology and declaring the Taj as one of the world's most trusted brands in hospitality."
"If you are used to managing the reputation of a Western brand whose credibility is taken for granted in most parts of the world, a situation like this will stretch your creativity beyond the limits of any work you have done before. How do you defend a valid business proposition from the biases of the very same culture you have been raised in? How do you protect a brand against cultural discrimination?"
It is through questions like these that Cambié points the way to a new world order in which so-called sophisticated Western communicators will find their paymasters to be in Shanghai rather than New York, Mumbai rather than London. Cambié's challenge is that we have not developed our cultural bearings outside of the West sufficiently to operate as effective communicators in this new world of Globalization 3.0. And perhaps she has a point. While British communicators complain that their jokes don't work with the Germans, there is a far bigger game to win or lose of which we have only the slightest inkling.
We do get the odd glimpse about how much the world has changed in communication terms. Cambié describes "the day the world changed" in communication on 12 May 2008 when a massive earthquake hit China's Sichuan province, north-west of Chengdu:
"The Xinhua News Agency reported the news 18 minutes later. An hour and a half after the quake, Party Secretary Hu Jintao had already made public his plans for emergency relief efforts and Premier Wen Jiabao had announced he had left for the scene of the disaster. This reaction speaks volumes about the way in which China has changed and has become aware of how it is perceived abroad."
Not only has China got itself on the front foot (in 1976 when 240,000 died in a similar earthquake the authorities denied its happening and refused international aid), but its news management was more accurate in describing a more authentic and compassionate government than the newsreel of Bush flying over a flooded New Orleans while local TV concentrated on stories of looting down below.
Hitherto opaque regimes are making us change our cultural values through growing financial clout and greater visibility. Yet at the same time there is the perfect storm of technology change and youthful populations in the BRIC economies for communicators to contend with.
The second part of the book is Ooi's take on the role of social media on international communications. Here she gives a concise and readable history of the evolution of Web 2.0 which serves as an excellent primer on this whirlwind phenomenon. But she does not deluge us with the same examples that American pundits are always drawing out of the hat. Instead she brings a refreshingly Eastern perspective to the subject. Who has heard, for instance, of the Kitten Killer of Hangzhou?
"The online video shows a woman standing in stiletto heels, her face partially obscured. She is by a river bank, caressing a kitten gently - apparently kindly. She bends down and places it on the walkway by her feet. The creature is docile, trusting. The camera follows her as she bends, focusing in a close-up zoom on the cute little kitten. Her feet in their shiny, stiletto sandals are very close to the animal. She steps on the kitten, hard, killing it."
"This is just one of many videos that had been spreading across the internet in China, showing dogs, cats, rabbits and toads being stomped to death by a sexy woman wearing stockings and high heels."
Ooi's example is important because as the videos spread they caused an outcry and a turning point for animal welfare in China.
"The woman and her actions were in effect tried online through the debate on blogs and on the threads on discussion boards....the woman was found. She was a nurse and had apparently been recruited by the men who had made the film. She was fired from her job and made an online apology."
A country which ostensibly had little regard for animal welfare (in 2006 around 50,000 dogs were killed indiscriminately as part of a cull against a suspected rabies outbreak), was able to demonstrate grass-roots protests and desire for change through the medium of social media.
Ooi's point is that social media's power lies in making the silent majority heard whether that is through posts on CEO blogs in the US or on the disaster relief sites that sprang up around Asia following the Xmas tsunami of December 2004.
In the concluding chapter of the book Cambié sets out to answer why Globalization 3.0 is critical to communicators:
"...these new international players are here to stay. In the past, they may have bought our products, but they will soon be buying our businesses. Working for these new bosses will require exceptional cross-cultural sensibility and world-class communication skills."
If this book is not the definitive word on Globalization 3.0 then it is its clarion call. The scores of examples and case studies collected by its authors are a powerful arsenal of arguments that will require any communicator, whether we stay inside our national borders or work abroad, to rethink not just what we say and how we say it but the channels we use to communicate. Ignore the book's central theme and we run the real risk of becoming irrelevant for our audiences and our clients.