Maintaining contact with journalists and providing them with information: these are basic tasks in corporate PR. However, opinion is divided on how these requirements should be tackled. Culture, and specifically communicating across cultures, plays a key role. This blog identifies a number of typical patterns of communications in American companies that do not meet expectations in Germany it also suggests a few tips on how to address the American-German business challenge in the context of PR.
By Ariane Rüdiger
PR is a matter of taste - not only for the receiver, but also for the sender. While not all journalists like the same things, some things are not appreciated by members of the press within any culture or country. Here, we will focus on the local quirks. These cultural challenges are not reserved for American companies only they can often crop up in PR activities for companies operating anywhere outside their country’s boundaries.
Let’s start with invitations for the media. What do journalists expect from these? Obviously, they want as precise an explanation as possible regarding the What, Where, When and Why of events. In other words, they want to find out whether what is on offer is worth sacrificing time for and, more importantly, whether it is worth travelling for. It’s a well-known fact that journalists don’t have much time. Time pressure is ongoing, not least due to the regime of 24/7 reporting and the speed expected when producing online copy.
Nothing to say -- then don’t issue an announcement
If a newly-appointed manager has nothing more to say than that he or she has just joined a company, and will be present at a certain on-site event, the company and the PR agency should think twice before issuing a release. A new hire simply is not enough to generate any enthusiasm, let alone trigger significant coverage. Even if the person in question plans to link their arrival with a visit to customer Y premises, in town X, and invites a couple of journalists for a conversation over drinks, that is just not enough. If there is no substantial news, companies are simply better off waiting until something worth talking about comes up - which should not take all that long with a proactive manager in charge. Such news will certainly be well received by the press, especially if the person concerned is of good standing with the journalists from previous roles. Even news about the big-name new employee needs to be tied to something such as a company initiative, product release, or an important change of direction in order to be newsworthy.
Specific announcements instead of woolly strategies
Let’s suppose a press conference takes place. In that case, make sure you have some specific, meaningful news to announce. Woolly or fuzzy “strategies” focusing on events to come in the future only have a very minor role to play. They will only be met with a barely-stifled yawn from experienced editors who have seen many shiny plans come and go. Such strategies might barely survive the current financial year and rarely survive the term of office of the current CEO. Specific data and products are needed, as well as milestones and concrete notes on strategies to indicate when they are expected to be reached (or if they have already been reached). For ongoing strategies, it can do no harm to indicate that milestones have not (yet) been reached, to keep items live and current, and to explain why—otherwise the press may quickly form the impression that the company produces strategies instead of products and services. ‘Our new X will be talking about our new Y’, as opposed to ‘We have just hired X’.
Non-disclosures are a nuisance
Much favoured by companies from the English-speaking world, one of the features of the current media landscape that most irritates German outlets is the non-disclosure agreement. While sometimes quite modestly phrased, at other times non-disclosure requirements are festooned with threats of all types of draconian punishment, the scope of which could quickly bring an individual journalist, particularly a freelancer, to the brink of financial ruin. This begs the question of why someone would pay said company the honour of a visit at all... Why don’t companies make their announcements when the news can be published? Non-disclosure goes directly against journalists’ natural instinct to publish the news items they discover. In a competitive business, they also wish to be first. Essentially, the non-disclosure requirement is counterproductive. This is especially clear when the news restricted by non-disclosure agreements in Germany or Europe can already be found in the America or in other English-speaking media before the agreement period expires. Remember, while few English-speakers read German, many Germans speak English. If journalists feel adversely affected by this, the German media outlet might in future ignore your news altogether.
If you want to make a mystery of yourself, you don’t need PR
Some companies in the English-speaking world suffer from excessive secrecy regarding information.  Sometimes even the most basic data about their companies – data which is more or less publicly available – is treated as official secrets. The oft-used argument that the company is listed on the stock exchange and cannot reveal anything at the moment (‘quiet period’) may just about make sense but the reasoning that a company is ‘private’, and is therefore not obliged to disclose information, is laughable. How is the German public supposed to be able to make a realistic assessment of a company’s viability (whether as a partner, or a supplier) if the company will not even talk about how many people it employs in Germany or elsewhere?  In such circumstances, the company should save the money it spends on PR and invest it in the search for more open management. What the company itself writes on the internet, in brochures, or by way of downloadable material, is already public hence can be published and quoted - even without permission. Period.
Europe has many languages
Let us assume that a company decides on a less ostentatious presentation of some current news. Normally, this means a press release will be issued. The aforementioned principle also applies here: less, but specific, information – especially in the respective language of the region – is key.
While English is widely understood, not every member of the German press is fluent in it. It’s also, quite simply, polite to address people in their own languages, as any tourist who has learned a few phrases in the local language of their holiday destination can confirm. Europe has many languages, and they come with individual peculiarities. If you have something to say to a potential customer in a certain region, it is ultimately to generate sales. It should therefore be worth committing a certain amount of HR and financial resources to it. This includes translations, which should not be done by an online automated translation tool, but by competent professionals translating into their mother tongue. All too often, anything else leads to results which have the potential to annoy editors, or worse even, make them laugh about the company and its PR efforts.
Empty words with neither rhyme nor reason
To put it plainly: on the other side of the pond, PR drifts into marketing on this side, it is more about factual information regarding a product. When localizing press releases by nation or language regions, don’t lose sight of the fact that extensive and largely meaningless quotes from corporate managers mean little to German target groups, or to the media. After all, these quotes could also be found in all competing publications. So, if you put quotes in, make them specific. For example: ‘It is our intention to open up a branch in Germany in the next six months’, not: ‘As part of our ongoing strategic commitment, our plans include intensifying our business activities in German-speaking countries.’
Get your choice of quotes right
The same goes when quoting users. It is hardly surprising that a user who has invested thousands of Euros in a product or service will not complain publicly about it in a press release. This is why journalists simply skip over such quotes, for example, Peter Müller, CIO of X Industry Inc. said: ‘We have been able to achieve greater efficiency, flexibility and customer focus, which represents substantial added value overall and improves our competitive position significantly within the framework of the digital transformation.’ This sentence contains almost all the hackneyed phrases the media finds itself hammered with: efficiency, flexibility, customer focus, added value, competitive position, digital transformation. The information value is virtually zero. What’s the risk? Deletion of the quote, or of the entire release. If you want a quote to do more than impinge on journalists’ reading time, you have to provide precious detail. For example, if Peter Müller were to report that production costs have dropped so many percentage points since the product was introduced, or that average delivery time has been shortened significantly, that would be different.  Specific details grab journalists' attention and make them want to use the quote. And that is what the company wants. Isn’t it?