I was waiting on the platform for the train from Bedford to London Heathrow. It was October 2004 and I struck up a conversation with a local businessman (staying true to my American stereotype of perpetual friendliness). After a few minutes, the gentleman asked me what was really on his mind…
“What could Americans be thinking to not only have elected President George W. Bush once, but to be poised to reelect him for a second term?” To most Brits, it seemed… well… ridiculous.
I remember standing on the platform trying to explain how our media had splintered into audience segments where an American could hear and read literally only the point of view that they already held. That the United States was politically split in half – sometimes leaving friends or family members on the other side of the opinion divide. My new British acquaintance seemed generally satisfied with that answer. But I was left to ponder about the effect that my country’s leader was having on American business in overseas markets.
Four years later I was in Beijing and was surprised by the adulation Chinese openly felt for Barack Obama. I see the same widespread enthusiasm for leaders like Canadian PM, Justin Trudeau and Pope Francis. It’s the type of branding that helps to open doors to new diplomatic relationships and in the case of the pope, new ideas.
This country “branding” issue/opportunity is not universal. Larger countries garner more regional and international attention than their smaller neighbors. Every country has local and regional issues whether they be fishing rights or an upcoming presidential election. As Americans traveling internationally, we notice that our presidential elections receive press coverage literally all over the world. When a candidate like Donald Trump says something controversial meant to keep him as the top news story in the U.S., it is heard around the world and interpreted in many ways.
If all of this sounds like a distraction to most international business – it is.
Most of us avoid talking about politics, religion, and certainly any hot button issues when doing business abroad. We want to achieve our business goals. And alienating potential clients or partners with strongly-held contrary opinions is a recipe for disaster on any continent.
Here is advice on how to manage country branding in business:
- Most important: Do no harm. Don’t bring up controversial topics that need not be breached. No conversations about the refugee crisis with Europeans. No conversations with Brazilians about their recession. No AIDS talks with Africans. The list goes on, but this is where controversy stays in personal conversations rather than in business talks.
- Don’t take offense where none was intended. The temptation to react to statements about your country’s leaders or issues is understandable. It’s much more personal to a German to talk about Angela Merkel than for me to bring her up into conversation. Your German counterparts likely had a vote for or against her party’s election. When you would normally react, stop and first gauge the intention of the offender.
- Ask about the filters that color someone’s opinion. When an entire business dinner in Jordan stops talking and eating to hear your opinion of gun violence in the U.S., you can answer with the universal truth – it’s complicated. Then immediately start asking questions to learn what your fellow guests have heard and what they think about the issue. This will help you to carefully frame your answers to stay true to yourself and diplomatic to your fellow guests. If this sounds like too much hassle compared with a direct answer, remember that media, culture and personal experiences frame all of our perspectives. Do I know what a Jordanian thinks about this issue? Not until I ask.
- Always learn a country’s basic information before travel and doing business. This includes the country’s leader, their economic and social top topics and hot button issues. This takes the pressure off of your own country’s branding (if it’s negative) because you can ask questions about topics that your hosts should appreciate. It also is a signal that you have a basic respect for places where you do business (for more on showing local respect, please read my articles on Respect and also Social Corporate Responsibility).
- Pull the conversation back to how the subject impacts business and trade. As business professionals, this is usually a common area and one with less friction. And most leaders and topics can usually be tied back to it. For example, “Are new immigrants helping the U.S.? Immigrants represent a greater number of working adults in our economy. Most are bilingual with the capability to serve multiple markets. While there are adjustment issues, the U.S. has always absorbed immigrant populations successfully. So I would answer yes.” It’s a business answer to a question that has social, political and cultural implications. If the topic is a tricky one, then this business focused answer is a helpful bridge into another business topic that furthers building the business relationship.
No matter your political, cultural, social or economic views, managing key conversations helps further your international business dealings. Remember to (1) do no harm, (2) avoid taking offense, (3) ask for others’ opinions to understand their perspective, (4) know a country’s basic information and (5) pull conversations back to business topics as needed.
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