Best Practice

Why the closer you are to HQ the more distant you are from your audience

Understand your audience. Deliver the key messages. Break through the noise. Make it globally relevant. These are some of the challenges that communication professionals face every day.

And we often spend hours managing and educating our stakeholders on the fine art of driving impactful communications.

Impactful communication is about creating relevant content and delivering it at the right time, to the right people, on the right channel. The goal is to engage your audience in a meaningful way.

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Whether it’s getting a reporter to cover your story, an analyst to invest in your company or driving an employee to action. The first rule is to understand your audience. However, we often take our audiences for granted.

We assume we know what they want and how they will act. But what if we’re wrong? What is the negative impact of irrelevant communications? What if your communication actually does more harm than good?

About a decade into my communications career, I started hearing the phrase, “that’s not global” from some of my colleagues around the world. I was working for a Fortune 500 company where I was responsible for developing a corporate story that could be utilized across the company.

I worked with colleagues around the world to get it translated into several different languages.

And yet I kept hearing, “that’s not global.” It was frustrating. At some point, I started ignoring the comment. I didn’t understand.

A few years later, I had the opportunity to do an international assignment in Europe. I had a successful track record at headquarters and was sent to lead the communications practice in Europe, Middle East, Africa, and Russia. I was sent to fix a problem, but I quickly realized how much I had to learn.

Within two weeks of my new role, I realized that it was impossible to create globally relevant content sitting in isolation at headquarters. As one of my key stakeholders used to tell me, “the closer you are to headquarters, the further you are from your audience.”

As much as I hated to admit it, he was absolutely right. I did not live and work in the communities and countries that our employees and customers did. I had no idea what was truly relevant to them.

The best-case scenario was that I was wasting my time creating content they didn’t care about. Worst case scenario I was actually doing harm.

About six months into my assignment, I experienced a situation where our internal communications were having a negative impact on our employees. Every year around the holidays, my company encouraged employees to give back to those less fortunate.

It often became a competition between organizations to see who could contribute the most. This particular year our organization was raising money for the March of Dimes, a United States nonprofit organization that works to improve the health of mothers and babies.

The corporate team kept sending emails to the global organization encouraging them to donate. After a few weeks, one of my employees made a comment about the pressure to give.

As her manager, I told her not to feel obligated to contribute. She said she believed in giving back, but why would she contribute to the March of Dimes? They don’t even operate in her country. If she was going to give back, it would be within her own community. It made complete sense.

The communications regarding the March of Dimes were not only irrelevant, they were upsetting to the employees outside of the U.S. I immediately picked up the phone and called my colleagues at headquarters. After explaining the situation, the communications stopped.

The following year the entire donation structure was changed to allow employees to give to the charity of their choice, in their own country. Even as an ex-pat living in Europe, I hadn’t realized the negative impact of the communications. It only took someone speaking up for me to understand and pick up the phone and make the change.

This experience and others have stuck with me through the years. Something as simple as communicating about a team lunch after an all-hands meeting can make remote employees feel isolated.

Not taking the time to understand and appreciate different cultures and countries can lead to inadvertently insulting people. When someone says, “it’s not global,” listen to them.

In today’s complicated world, understanding your audience and driving targeted internal communications has never been more important. Internal Communications is critical to driving company culture, and can lead to employee productivity, engagement and even happiness. On the flip side, it can isolate and even insult your colleagues around the world.

It is impossible to be an expert in all countries and cultures, so build relationships with your colleagues around the world, and practice listening and understanding.

Your communications will have greater impact if you do!

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