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Heather Knox

Creating a flexible narrative for Europe

a view from

Heather Knox

Director of Communications, Microsoft EMEA

Every region of the world has its complexities, but in Europe they are particularly pronounced.

Home to 800 million people, Europe's constituent countries vary tremendously: from culture and language, to climate and politics. This diversity presents significant challenges for pan-regional communicators.

Refining for relevancy

We have to think about how our corporate story and messages will resonate and be relevant in different languages and countries, with different histories and local sensitivities, and even different product offerings. It is far from easy, but it can be done. For a multi-national company like Microsoft it is vitally important that we succeed in balancing the global story with our regional realities to ensure both consistency and resonance.

There is a core essence to our company – a global brand Gestalt if you like. We touch many audiences – consumers, business leaders, governments, teachers, healthcare workers, etc. through products, partnerships and programs.

Interactions with and exposure to Microsoft may vary across audiences and geographies – but there are brand attributes that transcend audiences that we want to convey. This has an impact on our communications approach that is different from companies with fewer complexities to manage.

Repairing a regional relationship

 In Europe, we saw the anti-trust case settlement with the European Commission 18 months ago as an opportune moment to press ‘reset’ on people’s impressions about Microsoft.

For years case coverage clouded over stories about the company’s deep and significant contribution to Europe: from billions in R&D investments to fostering a 200,000 strong partner ecosystem, to programs that help start-up companies. We wanted people to turn the page and refocus on Microsoft‘s positive impact in Europe, reconnecting with the brand, and recognise too how important Europe is to Microsoft.

What did we do? To start with, we wrote it all down: What we do with European consumers, citizens, businesses, partners, our employees, governments, and why it all matters. When people are working across timezones, languages and product groups, it’s easy to lose left-to-right perspective and to know what’s important.

Our communications team took the lead on connecting the dots and shaping a narrative – purposely omitting things, too. We drilled into audience research to analyse perceptions about the company. We mapped out the issues and trends being written about in Europe, and where we wanted to see more impact in our communications. We realized there were gems of untold stories we hadn’t been surfacing well enough – and other stories that were simply a distraction.

We took our narrative, built with a Europe lens in mind, converted it into an easily digestible format, and worked with country teams to further localise their versions with data, context and examples.

A side benefit  in the common look and feel now is in the way each local version helps people quickly compare issues and priorities from place to place, and it helps travelling executives quickly digest local considerations when on the ground.

Cascading a common view of how we talk about the company across our broad footprint while applying a local lens is now used as a best practice outside of Europe, too. Having a global communications framework in place has helped ensure our brand and audience messages remain the consistent currency, while considering the lens appropriate locally. Beyond the messages, it is also helping us prioritise the most important stories we want to tell.

 

Take time to document your story, based on the external environment as your North star, and give flexibility to teams to further localise and let personal anecdotes shine througih

While we’re on a continuous journey to evolve the way we convey our stories in a meaningful way, getting our internal teams aligned to the external, local agenda when they talk about the company, has made a real difference already.

However, it’s not enough just to document facts. We also have to have great storytellers who can connect with their audience. That requires a pool of well-trained and capable local spokespeople with personal insights about how Microsoft is helping people in Paris, Prague, or Porto, because it’s those stories which will best bring to life who we are and how we help.

In the technology industry, rarely do spokespeople have a problem with the what – product features and data. It’s the why, and the how we did something, or helped others to achieve something great, that has been a conscious shift for us to surface.

Showing local flavour in the stories we tell

We’ve begun to focus on helping our teams go beyond the facts, and to inject local colour, weave in personal anecdotes, and make their story relevant to each audience. It can take time before people feel sufficiently confident doing this and not everyone is comfortable with it. We can see the difference in the outcomes when it happens; it’s a core part of making the company more authentic, personal and interesting.

For me, the clearest evidence our approach is working is the consistency internally and externally, and a great triumph in seeing one of the most important messages about how the company is partnering with Europe, recently echoed by third parties and influential industry figures.

So, my advice for anyone leading European communications, especially for a multi-national company, is to embrace the region’s diversity and let it work its magic locally while keeping in mind your master brand proposition.

Take time to document your story, based on the external environment as your North star, and give flexibility to teams to further localise and let personal anecdotes shine through. By having a deep understanding and acceptance of local dynamics and audiences, and identifying and documenting a shared agenda, you can develop compelling plans, tools, stories and measurement systems that work globally, regionally and locally and drive better outcomes.

Sounds simple, but the best answers to complex problems often are.

 

Colin Byrne

Developing diversity

a view from

Colin Byrne

CEO, Weber Shandwick EMEA

Working with clients and brands that span Europe brings great opportunities but also great challenges.

As Heather Knox rightly notes, countries across the continent have differences in media, culture and beyond that lead to many complexities; often making pan-European PR an intricate process that demands a multi-layered and diverse approach.

Understanding digital diversity

Added to this, the development of digital and social media at varying levels across the region creates a fragmented landscape, all of which can create further obstacles to effective pan-European campaigns.

As PR professionals, it is now more important than ever to tell stories that resonate. A cluttered media environment combined with increasing channels and distractions means that all businesses are fighting for the attention of their audiences.

Having a famous global brand no longer guarantees coverage, share of voice or permission to tell your company’s story; and is ineffective in reaching the audiences and influencers that we all strive to impact upon. The way these are then communicated also needs to be cognisant of how audiences in these markets consume media.

Talent is critical. In my experience, one of the best ways to ensure that PR campaigns reach their goals is to employ a diverse team. Within Europe, London is often a hub, but agencies must not rely on this experience alone to guide their campaigns. This is where the power of having a strong network of deep-rooted agencies is key.

Teams in target markets will naturally have stronger links to local political agendas and better awareness of cultural intricacies, making them best placed to inform PR strategies and shape tactics – especially those of a more sensitive nature.

 

In my experience, one of the best ways to ensure that PR campaigns reach their goals is to employ a diverse team

At Weber Shandwick, while the majority of our work for the Microsoft Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) campaign is directed from the London office, our Brussels team is central in developing the European Union and Citizenship programme.

Their relationship with both media and other influencers in this space means that the impact of their work is far greater than it would be if operated from another hub elsewhere. To be a strong international agency or affiliate network, it is vital to combine a global footprint with local talent and expertise, otherwise you can easily lose sight of your target audience.

Social media channels bring a new level of complexity to European PR. While the likes of Facebook and Twitter score the headlines, consumer adoption levels and usage are not consistent across the region. In fact, many countries have their own local networks – such as Skyrock in France or Hyves in Holland – which compete with the brands we know for user mindshare.

Finding the opportunities in local platforms

This challenge has come to the forefront in the past five years and cannot be ignored. It does, however, present many opportunities. While English language still drives the majority of our work across Europe, the well documented rise of social media has empowered citizens to lead the charge in creating user-generated content.

The range of new channels, and the ease at which we can use them for communications, means that expectations are now raised for messages delivered in local languages – whether that be a tweet, Facebook update, blog or otherwise. This can bring higher authenticity; something that helps achieve breakthrough in this fragmented and cluttered media landscape.

So what does this all mean for PR? Rather than run scared at the complexities of EMEA, embracing new channels and opportunities actually enables us to strengthen our abilities to create meaningful, perception-changing and influential campaigns that interact with audiences in ways that were not previously possible.

Analysing the differences in how markets operate can be time consuming, but undertaking this exercise is vital in ensuring that PR meets its objectives. New media channels allow us to be more visual and interactive than ever before; making these the key to effective PR across the region.

 

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