lac_megantic

To get a sense of how your company might look if it were involved in an overseas public-relations disaster consider a tragedy here in Canada, and how it reflected on an American company: last year’s tragic events in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. Bradley Moseley-Williams, a professor of public relations at Ottawa’s Algonquin College remembers the PR response by the Chicago-based Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway. He describes the CEO, Edward Burkhardt, arriving at the disaster site deep inside francophone Quebec dressed casually and speaking exclusively in English. “The Lac-Mégantic disaster looked like an American company that didn’t much care in the face of obvious suffering,” Moseley-Williams says.

There are two kinds of public-relations impacts when it comes to your company’s reputation in a foreign crisis—the overseas impact and the impact on your company back here in Canada. A disastrous clothing factory in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka last year not only saw grave tragedy there but it hampered the reputations of Canadian retailer Loblaws, which worked hard to overcome the damage.

The first thing is to try your damnedest to avoid getting into trouble with the citizens of a country you operate in. PR disasters shouldn’t happen but sometimes they do. Usually, Moseley-Williams says, it’s the result of some other business problem, such as a health and safety disaster, as in the 1984 Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India. “Remember: their marketplace is made up of actual people—it’s not just a foreign place in which to make money. Have an open flow of communications at all time. Treat them with respect.”

When thing are going well, do your best to help local workers and suppliers and to work co-operatively with local governments. When the Canadian food giant McCain began making potato snacks in India for local consumption the New Brunswick-based firm helped local farmers switch over from traditional perforated-bucket irrigation to slow, consistent drip irrigation. The result was a huge increase in potato harvests, which assured McCain a good supply of raw resources and gave the farmers a big boost in income. “You build deeper roots with the local community,” Moseley-Williams says.

Read: The 5 Classic PR Blunders SMEs Make

“The McCain example is were PR can deliver a lot of benefits,” Moseley-Williams says. “In the new world of the Internet, the McCain story lives forever online and helps McCain’s reputation forever. It’s important to know that in a connected world and the increasing use of social media, Canadian consumers can now care about production issues in other countries, and that knowledge will reflect their purchasing behaviour at home. People ignore this at their peril.”

He believes that local public-relations contacts are worth the expense. “Always work with local resources so they can introduce you to situations that will help you build your brand,” he says. And while it comes at a cost, Moseley-Williams says even SMEs can should do it, tailoring the investment to their budget. “You wouldn’t count the cost of legal counsel in that location,” he says. “Could someone use [the global PR firm] FleishmanHillard in New Delhi? Perhaps not, but there’s always somebody to meet your budget.”

And when things go wrong at home, make sure that your head office and field offices are prepared. “Always have a crisis-response plan—you should always be ready to respond,” Moseley-Williams says. Have a chain of command on who’s going to be informed, who’s going to speak and what will be said. Always tell media and local residents when you will communicate again. Update stakeholders regularly—don’t make them guess when your next update will be coming. “This helps you to control the message and control the flow of communications.”

Be sensitive to local customs, religious practices and culture. Rely on your local PR contractor to help you understand sensibilities that will affect your business. If the males in a country you operate in have dominant status and you have to close a factory, not only will those men be losing income, they will be losing status.

Always work with local and international media in a crisis. “Don’t shut them down,” Moseley-Williams says. “You’re a fool if you turn down the opportunity to talk about your perspective to control the conversation. People who are disdainful of the local media will harm themselves in the long run.”

It’s equally important to communicate with your employees at home and abroad and to integrate policies in foreign countries with those of your home office. If you like to champion education in Canada, help employees in developing nations to pay for their children’s education. If you offer day care in Canada, would it make sense to offer it abroad?

Remember that in the Internet age you should be consistent in your message and give the message to everyone. Treat foreign audiences with respect. People at home and abroad will be watching your company during a crisis and how you respect will directly affect your bottom line.

Sign up for PROFIT’s Trade Tipsheets for useful, proven, FREE tips for cracking foreign markets!

Loading comments, please wait.