Archive for May, 2013

In Washington last week I found myself mentioning the coming globalization of higher education to a colleague.  He instantly  responded by blurting out, “What do you mean “coming?” We have been living in an internationalized world for some time, and right now you are in a total international city!”

When you think about it, he’s right. Every taxi driver in the city seems to be from a different part of the world.  From the airport mine was from Ghana. I was greeted at a nearby hotel’s happy hour by a hostess from Prague, and my maid in the hotel in which I was staying was from Columbia. My taxi driver to a restaurant that night was from India.

And what about food? Would it be Thai, or Greek, or Chinese, or Italian, or Indian. Oh yes, American cuisine can be found too if you look for it. But the choices now are endless, and all are authentic. I chose a steakhouse, but in the same neighborhood were Mexican, Spanish tapas, and Asian fusion choices.

I commented to my friend that I was impressed how well all these people spoke English, and that I wished I had mastered more languages.  But he pointed out that in the global village of today it’s almost impossible to pick the one or two languages that cover the territory.  He argued that the whole world is rapidly accepting English as the common language, and that our challenge now is more learning how to better relate and adapt to other cultures and value systems than learning other languages. An interesting perspective, indeed.

If my friend is right, it is important to begin thinking about this world, not as a coming international community and marketplace, but rather as a global village that has already arrived. That means every university, nonprofit agency, association, business, city, nation and individual, in one way or another is already being influenced by other countries, or is already doing business with them.

This may seem to be a simple truth.  But seeing it in greater depth is likely to change our short-term thinking as we develop our organizations’ marketing and communication plans. How will we respond sooner rather than later to global competition right here at home?  Should we expand activities to other parts of the world earlier than we thought? Indeed, what are all the ways we must change our organizations’ culture in order to have everyone prepared with appropriate savvy and knowledge?

You better have a short-term action plan in mind. The global village is not coming. It is here.

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This week I visited a meeting of the Young Professionals in Foreign Policy group in Washington. It was a gathering of 50 or more mid-career strategic communication professionals working in various foreign policy positions.  They came from government as well as NGO’s, embassies, think tanks, and more. They meet together mainly for professional development and to share their experiences and problems with each other.

The meeting kicked off with a panel discussion. Members of the panel included the Director of Foreign Affairs at the Brookings Institution, the Director of Arab World Engagement at the Center for Strategic Counter-terrorism Communications at the State Department, the Chief of Protocol at the French Embassy, and the Strategic Communication Officer at IFC World Bank.

YPFP is a very impressive group. I have long observed that students and graduates who make it to Washington as interns or young professionals are among the best thinkers universities produce. That evening I felt as I do when I am surrounded by our own honors students at TCU: The world will really be just fine when these talented professionals are in charge!

Even as a life long teacher I sat there thinking how much I can learn from their experiences. Everyone one of them is already on the front lines dealing with serious security and policy issues. One panelist described how she monitors websites in the Middle East to determine where young people gather and how to influence their thinking about the U.S. Another panelist addressed the challenges of simplifying messages related to very complicated financial matters for foreign audiences. Eventually everyone was discussing how to advance their foreign policy careers. Being willing and prepared to take on the most difficult national problems seemed to be their common theme.

The director of the group and I closed the evening by talking about how I might get involved and be of service to the organization. The real question will be, from my 40 plus years of practicing and teaching strategic and international communication just what can I offer them? One thing is clear: With this group I will be doing more listening than lecturing!

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Several weeks ago I observed an extremely frustrating situation which I have been thinking about ever since. What made it worse was that I was incapable of influencing it. And as I reflected on it afterwards, I had to conclude that it was very typical of many communication situations we face in meetings every day.

There were two groups in the room. One group represented an organization about to be evaluated.  And as a part of preparing for this overall evaluation, its leaders had included a proposal for a bold new and comprehensive institution-wide internationalization program. To me, it was an extraordinary proposal with highly creative features.

The group doing the evaluating, however, chose to see this new program differently. And while they initially gave fairly high marks to the organization overall, their evaluation of this new program proposal turned very negative and dominated most of the meeting time. Rather than applaud the institution for its imaginative new initiative, the evaluators chose to review this proposal as if it was a program already in operation for several years. They focused on the absence of a fully developed institution-wide and long-term budget, a complete organization chart detailing every administrative staff position that would be needed for the total program, and specific methods for evaluating all outcomes. By the end of the meeting, all of this negativity led to an overall feeling in the room that the institution’s capacity to accomplish its overall goals was also being questioned.

On the other hand, my assessment as a listener was that this proposal to internationalize an entire institution was one of the most innovative I have seen anywhere. In fact, I thought it was so carefully thought out that it has the potential to actually achieve national distinction. To me, the start-up budget amount was clearly a strong initial commitment, and it did include a plan for  expanding resources as needed along the way. The proposal also described how all the programmatic details of organization-wide implementation would fall into place over time. I was energized and truly excited by the planners’ imagination and vision. But because the tone of the entire meeting was so negative, everyone representing the organization was depressed and demoralized in the end. I was ready to get on with implementing this new and exciting program, but everyone else was huddling after the meeting trying to understand what had just happened.

This clearly was a situation where two groups were communicating past each other, and the outcome was very disappointing. A preliminary meeting to clarify and set some guidelines might have avoided this negative outcome. Admittedly, pre-meetings are not always feasible. But preparatory conversations that try to anticipate both intended and unintended consequences can make all the difference when a constructive outcome is essential to moving forward.

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How many times have I been in meetings with small nonprofits listening to volunteers make long lists of ideas for how staff can improve visibility and recognition?

Most of the time I just wanted to tell them that anyone can think up more stuff to do, and more stuff to send out. Doing that is not even helpful. The key is to know exactly the right messages, the right audiences, the best tactics, and a feasible way to evaluate effectiveness… and then to make sure there are enough people available to do the work, and an adequate budget.

This is not rocket science. For marketing and communication professionals, it’s difficult to comprehend why people in general don’t understand all this. Too many people think more is better, and they really have no idea what professional public relations practitioners actually know and do.

Simply put, it’s never a matter of making lists of things for the current staff to do, and then making assumptions that they never thought of these things! Trust me, they have. Rather, it’s a matter of going through a systematic planning exercise to determine what not to do, as much as knowing what to do. Sending out more stuff only contributes to an already saturated environment, even when your organization has adequate staff and expertise.

First, you need to identify a set of message points that differentiate the organization from other similar ones. Collectively, these points define brand identity. Then, a few manageable priority markets must be identified, along with the media that each of them prefers. A simple survey mechanism also must be identified to assess market needs, as well as communication effectiveness. And finally, any added work needs to match the size and talent of available staff. Volunteers and interns are helpful, but not reliable over time.

It is very important to remember that more is never automatically better in communication. Less communication, well done and focused, can move organizations ahead. Small organizations must settle for baby steps. But regular and persistent baby steps do lead to  growth and recognition. It’s smart planning, rather than just more activity, that produces results.

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