David RitcheyDavid Ritchey

A few years ago, while I was a Fulbright Scholar in Bucharest, Romania, I called on many public relations agencies to visit with staff about communications in that country. One of my stock questions dealt with globalization.

At one agency, the President of the company laughed at my question.

“There’s no such thing as globalization,” she said. “All PR is local.”

That’s not what I had expected; it isn’t what I had been taught and had lectured to students.

She continued: “PR must be local, because you’re dealing with people in a city or a village. You must reach those people in their homes.”

Globalization has become a magic word, and ever since PR agencies have attempted to get up to speed with it. University professors spend a great deal of time lecturing about globalization; occasionally, organizations with staff members who don’t understand what it means will call them for help with the concept.

The Romanian agency President’s comment highlighted exactly why globalization training has become paramount for public relations practitioners. For one, agencies wanting international reach need to hire people who speak other languages and have some knowledge of customs in other countries.

I was prepared for my first class in The University of Romania. With a class roster in hand, I called on students in my feeble effort to learn their names. I often pointed to students.

After class an American student rushed to me and said, “I must tell you something. When you point at students, you’re making an obscene gesture. This is much worse than raising your middle finger to the class.” I thanked the student for this valuable bit of information and I never again pointed in Romania. What happened? I had made a cultural error. The students forgave me and gave me a pass for this cultural faux pas.

In Beijing, China, I once frightened a class of first-year public relations students. I was lecturing about information and how it’s passed from person to person or organization to individual. When I mentioned government controlled information, a wave of discomfort swept across the class. Even the Communist Party’s representative looked startled. I let the moment of panic subside and commented that weather reports are often distributed by government agencies. The students gave a sigh of relief.

Later during my work in Beijing, I had an appointment with the only PRSA member in China. She couldn’t meet with me but sent two aids, John and Lisa, in her place. We met at a large government building covered with metal filigree, which housed much of China’s propaganda activities. John and Lisa took me to a beautiful conference room. We sat in large green velvet chairs, with antimacassars on the arms and back of each chair. An attendant served tea.

Lisa and John made a friendly presentation about PR in China; the attendant took a photograph of the three of us with my camera. I turned to leave, but turned the wrong way. Soldiers, armed with rifles pointed at me, blocked the hall. Lisa grabbed my arm and led me forward as she motioned for the 36 soldiers to lower their weapons. Clutching my arm, she led me down the hall and between two rows of well-armed soldiers, then through eight lanes of Beijing traffic (cars, trucks, buses, donkey-drawn carts, buses, motorcycles and motor scooters). The she hailed a cab and sent me away.

Had I been in danger? Probably not: China wouldn’t cause an international incident because of a public relations professor.
My error was in learning too late what government activities had happened in that building. I wasn’t current on intercultural activities.
Tip O’Neill, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, said, “All politics is local.”

My adventures in the propaganda building were a combination of PR and politics and an excellent example of not being prepared to understand cultural differences. Understanding cultural differences prevents a PR professional from being an ugly American. That’s good public relations, even when it’s done in the name of globalization.

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David Ritchey, Ph.D., is professor of The School of Communications, The University of Akron.