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The importance of getting the language right in international PR campaigns

17th April 2015


Earlier this month I attended the Globalization and Localization Association’s annual conference in Seville.  There were over 400 attendees representing Language Service Providers from all over the world, most of whom spoke numerous languages, but all perfectly versed in English.  And then there was me, whose linguistic talents comprise of a ‘B’ in my French O’Level (that’s like a GSCE for younger readers) and the ability to order a ‘large beer’ in German.  It was quite an embarrassing situation to be in, but probably typical of many Brits abroad. 

Last July, the APPG for Modern Languages published its Manifesto for Languages calling for all political parties to make a general election manifesto commitment to improve the UK’s linguistic skills base. At the time, Baroness Coussins, Chair of that particular APPG, said that the UK economy was losing around £50 billion a year in lost contracts because of lack of language skills in the workforce.

Given the timing this blog, I decided to do a quick search for the word ‘language’ in the Labour and Conservative party manifestos.  In terms of our kids’ education, the only reference the Tories made was stating that they will require secondary school pupils to take a GSCE in a language.  However, the word didn’t even appear in Labour’s document at all.

It’s no surprise therefore, to hear many examples that show a naivety around the importance of language in the English-speaking PR industries both here in the UK and in the US, given the global nature of communications and our ability to access information instantly from anywhere in the world.

Getting the language right when communicating internationally can make a huge difference to the success of your PR campaign.  After all, according to Common Sense Advisory, 85% of international consumers prefer native language webpages when researching prepurchase, which impacts your SEO strategy too.

 

There are a number of challenges faced by PRs when planning an international campaign.  Gary Muddyman, CEO of Conversis, the translation agency that I recently joined, puts linguistic and cultural challenges at the top of his list and says that ‘literal translation is often not enough,’ and that ‘we need to engage the international audience in a way the source copy does for your domestic market.’  Muddyman believes that the influence of local resources with local knowledge is vital.

This is probably best summed up by a recent experience that London-based PR Consultant, Karolina Davison shared with me.  Davison describes herself as having one foot in the UK and the other in Scandinavia – she’s Swedish, but has lived and worked in the US for many years as well.  Recently, a client with a significant global presence asked her to translate and distribute a press release to the Swedish media. Instructions from the US HQ were simple and non-negotiable: ‘Translate, but do not change the legally-approved content in any way.’  However, since the press release was a corporate announcement and not specific to the Nordics, Davison said she soon realised that her odds of securing coverage would be limited if she wasn't able to rewrite it.  Her view is that ‘translation can be a wasted exercise if not combined with localisation’. In Davison’s experience from working in the US, it is completely acceptable to use poetic adjectives to describe a company's mission and the habits of its clients. However, in Sweden, she said that you stay close to the facts and refrain from using ‘flowery’ words or ‘lofty’ exaggerations. When American consumers are ‘passionate’ about a product, Swedes are ‘appreciative’, even though the direct Swedish translation would be ‘passionerade.’  She therefore believes that it comes down to adhering to cultural subtleties and argues that ‘it is not uncommon for entire company descriptions, i.e. ‘boiler plates’, to need a complete make-over in order to make sense and be taken seriously in a foreign country.’

Heidi Lorenzen of translation software provider Cloudworks summed up localisation in a blog post I read whilst researching for this post.  She wrote that it goes well beyond word-for-word translation and takes into account the nuances of regional audiences and customs to get the tone, phrases, and even images correct so that materials read naturally in each target audience’s own language, and do not convey unintended messages. Research and knowledge of your target market may reveal cultural differences and beliefs that can have a big impact on how marketing messages are perceived.’

This aligns with Muddyman’s view that ‘competent translation is just the starting point’.  His second challenge for International PRs is that of the tightly-controlled brand, managed centrally, versus local influence and adaptation.

The issue of local nuances and cultures is perfectly summed up by a case study that Jon Meakin, International PR Director of Grayling shared with me.  Meakin’s view is that ‘The challenges of understanding and adapting to cultural nuances are even greater than that of language.’ Last year Grayling ran a pan-European Christmas campaign for a global client with a US HQ, which he feels illustrates this perfectly. Meakin said that ‘Churchill described Britain and Americas as ‘two nations divided by a common language’ and the first issue was our US client’s insistence on referring to the Christmas period as the Holiday season. That and an assumption that ‘Europe’ is a homogenous entity, rather than a federation of 50 or so separate countries. While there are undoubtedly similarities between European nations – and we were able to identify five or six Christmas shopper archetypes that apply almost universally – there are many differences, and when you start to explore the different ways in which Christmas is celebrated you quickly realise that a template approach just won’t work.’ 

To make his point, Meakin uses the example that in Spain, gifts are not exchanged until Twelfth Night and that the same is true of Russia, although not all of Russia. He says that ‘it’s wonderfully complex’ and stresses that the key lesson is to ‘resist the temptation to ‘command and control’’.

Whilst Meakin agrees to set a framework, he believes that if you follow his advice and ‘allow individual markets the freedom to move within the parameters you set', you will ‘celebrate the differences and reap the rewards.’

This concept of the English and Americans sharing a ‘common language’ was highlighted in Curzon PR’s recent blog post following the opening of their New York office, highlighting small differences in spelling such as ‘colour’ and ‘color’, or that whole sectors of the [PR] industry go by different names in these two countries, with ‘food and drink PR’ known as ‘food and beverage PR’ in the USA.

I thought I’d stress the point further by coming up with two versions of the same (rather silly) sentence, both written in ‘English’:

‘The sidewalk outside the drugstore, on the opposite side of the cross walk from the gas station was covered in trash that had fallen out of the dumpster.  There was an old soccer ball, used diaper, a ripped pair of pants, and some half eaten cookies.’

or

‘The pavement outside the chemist, on the opposite side of the zebra crossing from the petrol station was covered in rubbish that had fallen out of the skip.  There was an old football, used nappy, a ripped pair of trousers and some half eaten biscuits.’

Davison probably puts it better than me though by stating that ‘You don't have to be bilingual to be faced with a localisation dilemma. Any English-speaking person who has worked with an American client knows that US-produced content often needs to be modified to suit the UK market. Sometimes it takes a lot more than just changing the z's to s's for the key messages to make sense. The more culturally distinct the country is from the territory where the copy originated, the more work it will require.’ In the case of her US client looking for coverage in Sweden, she ended up writing a pitch to make up for the cultural shortcomings of the press release she was provided and to spend more time than usual selling it in over the phone. She said that the end-result was ‘decent’ but not nearly as good as it could have been had she been allowed to rework the copy. The experience furthered her belief that ‘brands should be bold and invest the extra cost up front to make sure that their collateral is appropriately localised before sharing it globally,’ also making the point that ‘a misrepresented image of a company in the media can do more harm than good.’

A further challenge highlighted by Muddyman is that ‘every stage in the communication process available to potential customers needs to be localised.’  For example, he stresses that ‘it’s no use if your website is in a local language, if the telephone contact details leads to a Call Centre where there are no language skills.’

Finally, the last challenge to overcome is when you are trying so hard to make your existing copy work in a different territory, you might be better off going back to the original brief, and simply starting the copywriting process again.  This is when to consider transcreation, which Conversis defines as taking the values, concepts and key messages of the brand, but recreating them in the different markets by perhaps using more culturally relevant examples to ensure that audiences the world over experience the same emotional reactions to your brand.

If you want to understand more about the processes and procedures involved in managing a translation, localisation or transcreation project, Conversis are holding a workshop that is free to PRMoment readers, taking place at the Sofitel, T5 Heathrow on Tuesday 21st April.

Russell Goldsmith is a Director of Conversis Corporate



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