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Scott Brinton

Going global means thinking local

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I remember bright yellow trams as they lumbered along a virtually lifeless Vitosha Boulevard in Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital. They squeaked and creaked as they swayed from side to side.

It was an overcast day in the summer of 1991. I don’t recall the exact date. It was an eerie scene, like a Western ghost town.

Shops lined the streets. There were few goods inside, and fewer customers on what had been a bustling thoroughfare only a year earlier. It suddenly struck me: There were few, if any, advertisements. Shop names were painted in Cyrillic on their windows, but there were no fliers, billboards or neon signs to be found.

It was as if I had entered another dimension, wholly different than the U.S.

I was a member of the first Peace Corps delegation to enter Bulgaria after the fall of communism in 1990-91. I’ll never forget that visit to Sofia, when I first glimpsed a post-communist metropolis reeling amid Eastern Europe’s paralytic economic crisis, precipitated by the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union. I was touring the capital with a group of fellow Peace Corps volunteers. We felt alone in a city of more than a million people.

It was the first time I walked a street in a major population center without being confronted by a steady stream of messages urging me to buy this or that, stop here, go there, feel up, feel down, do this, do that. I could focus on the majestic Vitosha Mountain in the distance, on the stately trees lining the street. I could hear dogs barking.

I was reminded of that experience when I recently read “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication,” by Dr. Kara Alaimo, of Rockville Centre. Full disclosure: Alaimo is an assistant professor in Hofstra University’s Lawrence Herbert School of Communication, where she and I are colleagues in the Department of Journalism, Media Relations and Public Relations.

Alaimo, who earned her doctorate from the City University of New York, has a world of experience (pun intended) practicing global communications for the U.S. Treasury Department and the United Nations, and she uses anecdotes from her international travels to enliven this book, which is one part academic text and one part how-to manual for organizations –– from Fortune 500 companies to the tiniest charities –– that are seeking to spread viral messages around the planet.

As I read it, I kept thinking how, 30 years ago, such a book would have interested a relatively small set of academics and public relations professionals, but not necessarily a wider audience. Given the interconnected nature of the world today, however, Alaimo’s findings could now be useful to most anyone who wants to connect with an international audience or market.

At the core of it, “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street” is all about how to reach people in all their wondrous diversity. To truly engage, one must appreciate and respect the local culture, much as a Peace Corps volunteer does. Need you put boots on the grounds overseas? Ideally, yes, but not necessarily. You do, though, need to become a citizen of the world, seeking to understand the nuanced ethnic differences from one country to the next in order to tailor messages to your target audiences.

Understanding a concept as simple as a local customary greeting can ingratiate one to a populace, Alaimo notes. Not all cultures shake hands. Many hug, others kiss cheeks. Some are standoffish, others embracing. Bulgarians shake hands, as we do in the U.S., but their grips are not expected to be vise-like.

By the summer of 1992, Bulgaria was rapidly becoming a very different society than it was during the communist era, increasingly commercialized and globalized. American corporations had started to set up shop. There were Coca-Cola ads on the sides of those yellow trams, and the soft drink was plentiful, as were Marlboros and Levi’s.

I last returned to Sofia in 2013. Vitosha Boulevard was ablaze with colorful ads for a dizzying array of international corporations. Whatever you might want to buy could be had. People packed the street.

Alaimo’s book helped answer a question that has intrigued me for years. Bulgarians have a love-hate relationship with U.S. corporations like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Nike, alternately offering them praise and derision. In the end, they buy their products, despite, I believe, the well-founded concern that U.S. marketeers are flooding the landscape with signs. America’s biggest brands have penetrated even the most insular of markets, as Bulgaria once was, but they make little to no attempt to tailor their messages. So why are they so popular?

Certain companies –– Coca-Cola, for example –– are so well known across the globe that they become what Alaimo calls “master brands,” known to everyone everywhere. They feel no need to understand people at the local level.

And that, in my opinion, is a source of so much of the anti-American sentiment that people around the world feel.

Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ senior editor for enterprise reporting and staff development and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments? SBrinton@liherald.com.