There's good news and bad news when you look at developing a business-to-business public relations strategy for Europe. The good news might seem to be the coming together of (so far) 15 countries into a single Common Market. Or more formally, the EU (European Union). The bad news is that in practical, everyday terms the EU is anything but a single market, and its existence is of hardly any benefit when it comes to planning PR activities across Europe.
The population of the EU is currently around 380 million. That's only about a third more than the USA. But it's made up of 15 different countries. Each with a different language, different culture, different cuisine, different media, different philosophies about PR . And so on. The list is endless.
In the technology field, there are also major (and minor) complications. Take telephone plugs and sockets, for instance. They differ from country to country, which is an issue for road warriors who need to use their laptop computers for communications, and an issue for equipment suppliers.
And if you are in the business of marketing industrial and technical products and systems, you may find that your products need to be certified and approved separately in each country - a time-consuming and costly process.
There is at least some convergence, though. The single currency has been adopted by some (but not all) EU countries. Some type-approval processes are being harmonised. And the GSM mobile phone standard is a European initiative that ensures you can use your mobile phone wherever you are in Europe.
Don't be put off though. Europe is a hugely important and valuable marketplace with a future. No ambitious business can afford to ignore it.
But what does all this mean in PR terms ?
Well, if your primary task is building market awareness, developing brands, and generating business, you are still better off regarding your target audiences as communities of interest shaped by national - rather than European - characteristics. Language is undoubtedly the main issue, although, as elsewhere, English is the language of cross-border business.
If, like many North American companies, you choose the UK as your launch pad for European expansion, then at least the language issue is less of a worry in the short term.
There are some pan-European satellite TV stations, a handful of business newspapers such as the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal Europe and International Herald Tribune that have respectable circulations across Europe, and some good European and international trade magazines. But the fact remains that most people still get most of their information via national TV, radio and print media, in their own language.
This even applies to web-based media. People in Germany don't need to visit Silicon.com, they can go to Silicon.de, and read it in German.
So, even if your strategic goal is to develop a strong and uniform European brand, your business and PR tactics need to adapt to suit national needs.
McDonalds, for example, has a strong presence in Europe. And recently there have been some interesting national adaptations. Reflecting a keen understanding of UK culinary tastes, for example, McDonalds has introduced in the UK new meals based on the Indian cuisine that is so popular here. And the company's marketing communications mirrors this national adaptation.
This is a consumer example, but the same principles apply in business-to-business marketing and PR in Europe.
So, if the business landscape varies from country to country, what does it signal for business-to-business PR campaign planning ? The basic PR disciplines are universal. But your European strategy needs to take account of the differing needs of the media and other audiences in different countries.
At a basic level, it means having press releases in all the relevant national languages. To the European A4 notepaper format if they are in hard copy form. With dates in the day/month/year format. And a local point of contact and a local telephone number for journalists in each market. Ideally, the press room on a company's website will also include a local media contact name and telephone number for each market. Simple things like this send important signals to the media.
Even journalistic cultures vary from one country to another, so having someone on the ground who knows the local media's needs is really valuable. Don't underestimate the continuing importance of the lunch table in building business relationships in some countries.
And make sure you take into account national holiday patterns. For example, many people in Sweden go on holiday for the month of July, and in France for the month of August. So, these may not be good times to try and get your most important news out !
The availability of local company senior management (or a channel partner), able to give local-language interviews is vital.
Photography also has national nuances that need to be taken into account when dealing across Europe. Simple things like the office décor, the clothes and even the spectacles people are wearing in photographs send subtle messages, and can influence how acceptable the shots are to editors in different markets.
If your company is launching itself in European markets for the first time, remember to provide additional basic information on your business and the context in which it operates, to help journalists understand the background to your main pitch. In your home market, you may be highly regarded by the media as a 'home-grown' success story, and have a resultingly high corporate profile. But in a new market you may be effectively starting again from scratch. What will get the European media most interested in your company ?
It's also important to monitor local issues, trends and concerns that can - and should - be tied into the campaign. Sometimes, a company's core messages developed for a home market situation don't play equally well in all other markets, and some degree of local adaptation may be needed.
One aspect of this is the issue of timing. Who said that 'There is no such thing as different markets, only different timing'?
Timing issues pose obvious dilemmas for PR specialists working across different markets. There's not much point launching next-generation 'improved' products and systems in markets where people have not yet had a chance to experience the first generation. Or where there is a lack of basic infrastructure to allow these products to be used.
A situation like this might, of course, be a PR opportunity in disguise, giving a company a chance to take the lead in a particular market to raise awareness of the whole subject matter, in readiness for the commercial launch of products, systems and/or services.
The Internet has added a further complication to the timing issue. Journalists can and will go directly to a parent company's web site for information. How to handle product pricing information in the Internet era is a potential minefield. And be careful about assuming you can use the internet as a distribution vehicle for news - use of the Internet varies significantly from country to country, and from one media sector to another.
So don't be misled by the term Common Market. It might conjure up the image of a unified, single market that can be addressed in a unified, single way.
Europe is still a very profitable arena and one day, certainly, 'PR sans frontières' in Europe will be possible. But for the time being it's still best to 'think pan-European, but act country by country'.
Roger Staton is founder and Managing Director of Roger Staton Associates Ltd, an independent UK Technology and Industry PR specialist working on UK and European campaigns for companies in telecoms, IT and related fields. www.rsagroup.com
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