Arun Sudhaman 03 Jul 2023 // 11:20AM GMT
It seems obvious to observe that culture underpins communication, and that any attempt to build successful stakeholder relationships requires a keen understanding of a particular society's customs and behaviour. And yet, judging by the efforts of many multinational organisations in recent years, there remains a bias to one size fits all policies — a kind of lowest common denominator approach that often results in public relations efforts that make few concessions to events on the ground.
A quick perusal of PRovoke Media's annual Crisis Review confirms as much, judging by the number of global brands that have found themselves in hot water in recent years because they misunderstood local market forces. Often, the culprits are Western companies committing some kind of cultural faux pas in an overseas market, but Asian companies are hardly above blame, particularly when it comes to their approach towards such areas as media relations and workplace culture.
And while the world is more interconnected than ever, there are strong forces contributing to continued polarisation across national, religious and political divides, to name just three. Geopolitical tensions continue to plague the crucial relationship between the US and China, while companies are increasingly required to prove that their ESG commitments are more than just soaring rhetoric.
At the same time, the rise of Gen Z is reshaping how we understand demographics, as are considerations involving such factors as gender, race, sexual orientation, social class and disability. For communicators, inclusion has become a central factor, yet even there — rather ironically — it can feel like the agenda is being driven by a single worldview, rather than one that takes differing perspectives into account.
It's unlikely that any region grapples with these concerns more than Asia, which has a bewildering variety of ethnic, religious and language factors to contend with, along with much more. But Asian companies, and Asian communicators, rarely lead this conversation on a global level — despite the significant experience they have amassed in terms of working across multiple cultures.
Indeed, few Asian communicators make it to the top without an intuitive understanding of cultural nuance. Accordingly, PRovoke Media partnered with Ruder Finn Asia and the Asia-Pacific Association of Communication Directors (APACD) to better understand how organizations and leaders navigate cross-cultural communications at a time of increasing volatility. The following is an edited transcript of the 90-minute conversation.
- Azmar Sukandar, head of communications & society, Diageo
- Bridgit O’Donovan, head of communications, product and partnerships, Asia-Pacific, Meta
- Carolyn Camoens, director of APAC communications, Zendesk
- Elan Shou, regional president, Ruder Finn Asia
- Linda Lee, head of global corporate communications, Shiseido Travel Retail
- Rimmi Harindran, senior director, corporate affairs, AMEA, Kellogg
- Shruti Bose, head of communications & public affairs, Asia-Pacific, Roche Diagnostics
- Stephanie Yu, Asia-Pacific communications leader, Lenovo
- Arun Sudhaman, editor-in-chief, PRovoke Media (moderator)
"Sometimes it's about finding what brings us together"
New challenges for a new era
When it comes to navigating differing cultural realities in Asia-Pacific, the region’s diversity can sometimes seem bewildering. Ruder Finn Asia head Elan Shou helped narrow the lens by focusing on the role of the region’s biggest economy. While China’s role has been significantly reshaped by the Covid era, there is no denying its fundamental importance — whether from an outbound or inbound perspective.
Elan Shou (ES): We have two different problems that we are facing. One is, because of Covid, the China market is not doing as great as it used to be. So, many Chinese companies are going abroad and trying to serve the Southeast Asia market or even some other markets like Europe. Of course, there are reasons to leave the US outside this. But the problem is they have a very Chinese mindset. The Chinese mindset is 24/7, so I don’t stop working and you don’t stop working. That’s a very, very tough problem. Also, the way they approach the world is very Chinese. For instance, in their opinion working hard is a good thing. But, the European mindset is ‘I make a salary so I can live my life to the full.’ So it’s two different value propositions. How to consolidate is a big question mark for me.
On the other side, I can see China and other parts of the world are going down different channels. In China everything is about sales and conversion and the resulting KPIs. Whenever I go to Asia-Pacific or the US market, it’s about CSR, corporate positioning, reputation. So we talk about totally different things, but there is a problem because in some of the issues we have totally different positioning. The Ukraine war? China has a different positioning and on the Sino-US relationship, China has a different opinion. So when the US CEO comes to China he will take interviews — we are going to brief him and there are a lot of times the Western company tends to have a positioning on certain kinds of issues and their words will be passed back to the China market, and make an impact. How are we going to manage that? That to me is the biggest challenge today.
Shou’s comments reflect a disconnect between competing worldviews. Multinational corporations, though, are required to bridge that divide in a manner that benefits all their employees. And that, according to our participants, is not necessarily an easy task.
Azmar Sukandar (AS): We talk about engaging across differences. Even if you sit across someone from the same country or ethnicity as you, they bring in family history, education, the experience of a big kind of …everything that you have experienced has shaped you into a certain person with a certain point of view and it’s exactly the same with everybody that we work with. So how do you then take that into account when you put that into a professional setting, especially communications, so that you can get across as an organisation what you want to say, but also get across what you intend to do and have the other person understand and also come on board.
There’s national culture, but even within that national culture you have a spectrum of how someone might behave or take information. What we try to do, or what I do when I process communications, is thinking about all the different types of people taking that information in, how can I best frame it so that they can understand it. It doesn’t matter how I might think it might need to work. We could agree to disagree, but as long as you can do that amicably and have a certain amount of respect for each other then I think you can always keep talking. No one shuts the door, if that makes some sense.
Shruti Bose (SB): Differences are something we need to address and overcome. If companies started to talk about cultural uniqueness I think it will just provide a more positive connotation around it. How we as communicators lead the charge to get the world to that stage is something of a big question mark for everyone. There are some industries that are way ahead of this than others. An example being FMCG. But then I represent an industry which I do not think is, unfortunately, as far ahead. We need to be aware of the challenge that we need to solve as a society, but I think industry-wide initiatives are important as well. In a lot of conversations with business leaders they see cross-cultural communication as ‘business as usual’, someone is going to come up with a comms plan and we’re going to figure this out. Like, it’s easy. And so therefore it’s seen as separate to commercial success versus an integral driver of commercial success. By default, they are just setting it up as another problem to solve.
Rimmi Harindran (RH): Somewhere in our jobs is also the understanding that, at the end of the day, there is a human being. Still there are some very, very basic human aspects that relate to each other. Very often when we are having conversations we tend to find those similarities as well. So sometimes it's about finding what brings us together.
Bridget O'Donovan (BOD): It’s like building culture and belonging for people.
RH: A sense of community that exists across cultural differences. So sometimes for us as communicators I feel like what’s the starting point? At the company, we all want to do good, there is an end goal that we are all working towards. Maybe that’s the way to spin this around. The world we knew ten years ago is not the world it is today. There are times when people start off with those assumptions when they meet people or even in organisations to say that part of the region, this is what ticks. Even in this region it’s such a melting pot. What you can do in Japan may not really work in Indonesia and Australia.
Finding common ground
Harindran’s observations suggest that communicators need to spend less time thinking about how stakeholders might differ, and more time considering what could bring them together. The need for common ground may be more pronounced than ever, given the polarisation that typifies much of today’s social media discourse, but addressing this in a sensitive manner remains challenging for MNCs that often operate as if the only size that fits is the one that makes sense at head office, thousands of miles away.
SY: Maybe we need to spend more time finding common ground. During Covid, we are all working with the kids running around. The opportunity is to understand what are the common challenges from an employee standpoint and focus on those and on providing solutions and care. The other thing is context. Each global campaign should have a cultural expert to testify whether this campaign works locally. I think those layers of validation and discussion are really critical. It’s about helping our leaders understand that you don’t have to accept the culture, but you have to respect and understand and translate the culture right.
CC: I had the opportunity to work for three years in India and one of the things that taught me is, often when we think about cross-cultural we are thinking of across races and across those sorts of very classical definitions. But then I looked at that market and within that one market even though you could say homogenously this is all of India, but you had campaigns that were run so differently for the same product whether they were run in one city or a different city, either because of just the way mindsets were there or price points. I feel like what we maybe haven’t done enough as an industry is move away from demographic profiling to psychographic profiling in a much more deliberate way, in the way that we shape campaigns. We take briefs all the time and we never really have the opportunity to dig deeper into what the motivations of the buyer are. I think that’s a huge opportunity for us when we think cross-culturally, is just eliminate all the old ways in which we broke up markets.
BOD: I feel like in a regional role our job is listening to the product teams in the US who have an idea of what the product should be and where it should go, but listening to our local teams who are like, this won’t really work for us like this in Thailand. And being allied to both sides because you have to get to an agreement that will be good for the business. Finding the balance between those two different groups. In the regional role, our job is that glue in the middle.
Corporate values vs local realities
Finding common ground certainly sounds like a sensible enough strategy, but any communications effort requires a starting point, a compass of sorts. What exactly is an organisation trying to accomplish, and why? The word ‘authenticity’ is no doubt overused in a PR context, but it is crucial for companies when it comes to determining what they stand for, and what kind of decisions they need to make. In certain cases, as we have seen with many companies, that may involve some difficult decisions in specific local markets — but there is little chance of successful engagement if an organisation does not have a clear understanding of what its values are.
ES: That’s why I stick with agencies. I focus on the client, I make sure they’re happy, I’m done. And I feel that [in-house communicators] have so many different touch points and everyone has a different agenda or priority that they need to meet. We usually say, after 40 people don’t change themselves. So you meet with very strong leaders who have a personality, they might now listen to you, they might not. I don’t know how you guys deal with that.
CC: Your centre has to be strong. We are very, very fixed about DEI, that runs through everything. Every quarter we do a survey where we get feedback from the employees and then that goes straight back into how we improve things. I think that when your core is strong then your execs don’t have the difficulty in being authentic about how they talk about it, but there’s also space for them to flex into other cultures or different situations that they find themselves. It feels to me like bamboo that is strong but can also sway in the wind.
Arun Sudhaman (PM): A company will have its stated values and yet these become challenged sometimes in other countries. Elan, you started off by describing that in terms of Chinese companies going global and also in terms of US companies that are trying to resume their growth in China. So just following on from Carolyn’s point, how do you address that particular issue of trying to stay true to your corporate values whilst also being flexible enough to address whatever issues that might arise? Because we’ve all seen many examples of where it goes wrong.
BOD: It’s got to be that leaders show up and exude those values and its a part of your rewards or your review sessions. I think whatever team you’re on, if your leaders are echoing that then your core is always going to be that so you can work much better together.
ES: Leadership is very, very important.
AS: That idea of purpose is something we are all seeing much more than 10 years ago, where purpose wasn’t necessarily at the front. You have to have good performance to then have the luxury of being able to push forward more in your purpose. But you do need purpose to add that heft into your performance so people feel there is more than just the numbers.
SB: When we think about the future of cross-cultural communication, Asia-Pacific is actually leading the way because there is no other diverse a region on this planet. Everyone in this room, everyone that sits in an APAC team anywhere, can really drive the charge. Truth be told if our headquarters is in Switzerland, or in Germany, sometimes that culture and that context can dominate the rest.
At Roche we’ve been talking about diversity and inclusion for many years. It’s not a very new topic, but what I found interesting in my experience was it suddenly became like DEI had this global spin when actually I feel like DEI is so intrinsic to us in Asia-Pacific. I mean we live this. At Roche, we had to bring what we call the Freedom To Be campaign to this region because there will be some inequities in the healthcare system for women. It became a globally funded programme. They had a great idea, but it was a global idea for certain audiences and I think that the bolder we are, the more we are challenging internally the status quo.
CC: When I was in India, Lexus hosted these Design Innovation Awards. These kids had developed a mammogram machine that was mobile and small. First of all, women who live rurally are not going to travel for these tests and they are so much at risk. It was easy enough for a nurse to use so nurses could administer these tests and it gave an in-depth enough diagnostic capability to know if there was a risk of cancer. I don’t think it’s been commercialised because it just hasn’t been recognised as a big enough problem. These are universal issues and I was just so gobsmacked that they took something, they just sat there and thought how do we lower the barrier to entry for women.
PM: Sometimes I think of it in terms of how is head office going to adapt and change what they are saying in a specific market, when actually it’s more along the lines of, what does head office need to be listening to and learning from in all these markets.
ES: That’s actually very tough. China is such a unique market. A lot of things are just opposite, it’s like a mirror. One of the things we developed recently for our clients is that we grab what’s happening in this market because every month will have something dramatic that you can’t think about and then we put it together. Instead of using our own language to analyse we use newspaper quotes or online quotes just to show what is happening and what’s behind and what pushes it to that stage. We try to change the mindset of the headquarters little by little. Of course you really need to pick the stories carefully. Sometimes it might be too extreme and that makes them scared of what’s happening, but not necessarily.
BOD: I think we underestimate how much we need to share back. Having a little bit of knowledge of something here can be so useful and empowering for other teams. And the delight that you share and that rapport with each other is also really powerful, also educating them about what’s happening here. We underestimate it totally.
CC: Sometimes it’s how we brief execs as well. I just see the terror go across their face and then I have to tell them, the worst it’s ever going to be is with me. If you survive the role play that I put you through you will be fine, it’s ok. But then I feel that the way that we brief them also has to change. I think we prep them to a point that they are terrified to go outside of the script and then the authenticity gets lost.
SB: We speak to our commercial leaders in a language that they don’t understand and they speak in a language that the business understands. Business leaders love the language of success which is, if you do this, it is going to drive that. And the people, their audience, speak the language of the people — which is, tell me about me and what is it going to do for me. That’s where the storytelling can actually give the connection, the bridge. But because of the fear, we also give them a briefing doc which might be 50 pages or 20 pages or five pages, it can make it really hard for them.
Boots on the ground
Authencity and leadership are no doubt critical to cross-cultural communication, but they are likely to count for little if a company’s senior executives are unable to truly understand how diverse markets operate beyond their global HQ. This remains a significant challenge for multinational corporations, despite the plethora of leaders who may hail from different countries. As our participants discussed at length, few executives bring particularly broad geographic experience, and fewer global roles are based in Asia-Pacific.
Changing that would play an outsized role when it comes to better navigating different cultural circumstances. As would loosening the ties that often dictate that global campaigns must be led from HQ markets.
SB: I think that perhaps the power that we have is to help them build this cultural intelligence about actually if you do this, it’s going to help you land your message and then do that. How many of our executives are truly global in their thinking? Not just that they got educated in the US or the UK or wherever. Have they worked in enough countries to gain the experience of boots on the ground? In the English Premier League, they found that the team manager…every country he had been was going to add to the number of wins to the team. We don’t have this type of analysis in our companies. I don’t know how many leaders actually are told that you can get the top job if you have worked in, I don’t know, ten countries or five or whatever.
RH: We don’t have to look that high up the ladder. How many Asians or people outside of the West occupy global comms roles?
AS: It’s also because of, geographically, where headquarters is. I think that plays a part. And I wonder if this is something that may be post-Covid, hybrid working — does it need to be like that? Does the global role need to sit with the global headquarters if you are a global multinational when your biggest, most challenging market is somewhere else?
CC: It’s also just on a micro level because, when I joined Zendesk, three months in my colleague came to me and said, we have this big insight piece we put out every year. We decentralise, the campaigns move, EMEA did it last year. So I led a global campaign three months in to being in my role. I was like is this happening? This is awesome. This divides the work but it also gives us all an opportunity to operate. It gives a diversity to the lens that we put on campaigns as well, because we are coming at it from a different perspective.
RH: The minute you have diversity in global teams, it makes a big difference. Just the way those conversations happen — because a lot of times those closed door conversations make way for everything else that’s coming. Obviously companies are changing, but the point is that the leadership at most of the big companies are headquartered in a certain way. But the minute there is acceptance and then there is a willingness to bring in other people from the rest of the world you automatically start seeing change. It’s just the diversity of thought, which maybe all of us carry having lived somewhere else or grown up somewhere else. If that doesn’t work then the company and the organisation has to have the majority to bring in people there and give them those kinds of roles and that voice needs to be heard.
Learning from Asia
Anyone working in regional communications roles in Asia-Pacific has to understand cultural diversity reasonably well in order to survive. That should, in theory, give communicators from this region an advantage when it comes to helping their companies better address cross-cultural communication issues. Our conversation concluded by discussing how this could actually become a reality.
And while all of the factors already explored — authentic leadership and more diverse senior teams, better research and insights, a willingness to listen and learn — are crucial, the Roundtable participants warned that nothing will change unless Asians themselves become more proactive and courageous, in pursuit of these goals. Which is a challenge with far-reaching implications, ranging from something as ostensibly minor as call timings, to the nature of education itself in this region.
ES: I think I fully agree that we need to be more proactive. A lot of times on the agency side it is like we are taking orders from the client. At the same time, at the regional level we take what our headquarters in the US sends to us. But, a lot of times we should be more proactive. For instance, we want to take a global campaign, we want to take the lead, is it possible? Maybe we are ready to send someone to headquarters to work on this. Right now, we are more like waiting for you to tell me what to do and then we get angry because you have no clue. Sometimes I get really frustrated. I get a briefing document that says “I want an Asian launch.” I’m like, ‘which countries?’. Sometimes, instead of waiting for them to brief us maybe we should be more proactive — ‘why don’t you give this to us, let’s take the lead on this.’
CC: You need to be that active advocate for our region, for our teams, for our people, for the communities that we serve, back to our HQs everywhere we go, as much as we are for them locally.
SB: Just imagine how it would be if each of us in our companies and the ecosystems that we inhabit just consistently beat the drum about Asia-Pacific. Collectively, we have the power. But to the question about what can we do, I don’t think this is a comms problem to solve if HR isn’t looking at ways to onboard people with cultural training or cultural awareness.
The other thing is the education system. If our kids don’t grow up with a show and tell atmosphere, how do you expect them to at a global stage when they are working adults? Educators have a huge responsibility. They have to be ok with people challenging authority because, in the work context, that authority is actually HQ or someone that is senior. For us to feel comfortable enough to speak truth to power.
ES: The Asian culture is more reserved.
SB: And humble. A bane of everybody’s life that works in a regional role here, myself included, was night calls. One of the things that worked really well at Roche was when they started this whole diversity and inclusion push, we were like actually we would like to be included in calls that are within working hours for us because I could never imagine that a European would ever do a 10pm call.
ES: I used to have a brainstorming client in the US of course. 12 o’clock midnight brainstorming. I told him sorry my brain was literally dead, no brainstorming possible.
SH: Just be proactive like everybody says. Just decline.
AS: When we talk about inclusion and showing diversity we also had to have a look at how are we doing that individually too. So now, for example, all our regional town halls that I do out of the regional office, we have translations for everything. We have six languages plus English. I’ve learnt how to use Zoom in so many ways that I never thought I would in terms of running the tech for the languages. And now Zoom also records the translated audio, which is incredible.
That’s been transformational for us. Now we are pushing the boat a little bit saying, why does it have to be English first? This is the language that is universal for the company, but I genuinely want someone to feel comfortable. So we’ve done that once already. We do one language at a time. Because we found language to be something where it’s beyond culture. It’s really where our people can express themselves. These are some of the ways that being proactive and taking experiments and chances where we can hopefully model. It’s something that’s being looked at also now by global.
RH: This takes a huge amount of courage to do. I think this is really meaningful and why we talk about inclusion and cultural intelligence and all of that. The other side is to stay away from tokenism because that’s just the easy thing to do. It could be senior execs visiting Vietnam, just wearing the outfit to show up, but then everything they talk about doesn’t include the local fabric and the organisational fabric of that country. Don’t do this. Either you really mean what you say about having a stake in the ground or don’t do it because that seems like an insult more than anything else. Then it can so easily be interpreted the other way and it could be demoralising rather than anything.
Also, it’s about being deliberate. So proactive yes, but it is also about being deliberate and saying this over and over again. Imagine how loud that voice would be, but that will only happen when all of us say it and repeatedly say it. Sometimes we as Asians say it once, we leave it at that. I think there is merit in being deliberate and being shameless about it, a little bit, just to drive that point home. We need to talk about it to drive that message home and really bridge that power divide and power gap. As Asians I feel, there is a natural empathy because we welcome so many differences that we automatically know how to cater to that versus someone who has worked in a certain way. By driving that empathy piece and trying to bridge that power gap we will at least move the needle one step at a time.
SY: I think this is the region that actually represents economic hope. People need to pay more attention to this region. The most important thing is the talent. If we would actually advocate a campaign to say, not just comms people, but at a certain executive level, the job description for the location has to have some sort of cultural things in there.
CC: I think the other opportunity that’s presented in this region through its diversity is the opportunity to test campaigns, to test messages. I don’t think Asia is used as a test bed enough. Global campaigns are ideated or regulated overseas and then implemented or localised here when really they could be tested here. I think that’s a huge gap.
PM: I think all of you around this table can play a big role in helping that happen through some of the things we’ve talked about. Does head office need to learn more from Asia? Maybe Asians need to think about their own cultural barriers, that are stopping them from playing a more prominent role in terms of advocating lessons and learnings from this region. In Asia, I think there is a more implicit understanding that we have more that unites us than divides us. Maybe three lessons from here we can all leave here with: be more proactive, be more deliberate, be more bamboo.