We have to talk about Brazil, which is in its deepest recession for decades and the headlines today are full of political and corruption scandals. How do you motivate and engage your audiences in such difficult times?
NELSON SILVEIRA Brazil has been through one of its most challenging experiences with enormous impact in the local market, enterprises and individuals. The level of consumer confidence is at a historical low. Companies have been forced to restructure to adapt business models to the current reality of the market. The case of the automotive industry is even more challenging, as the market dropped almost 50 per cent from the peak in 2013. In times where you have to downsize and change the business model, the impact on the communities and employees is highly relevant. At GM we believe that being a workplace of choice is the best incentive to engage employees and boost motivation.
BETH GARCIA The worst aspect of the crisis was not its economic repercussions because a country with such an ample supply of natural resources, like Brazil, will certainly recover, but the despondency it produced in various environments which has contaminated and weakened communication. The greatest challenge now is to raise clients’ and institutions’ spirits. Times of crisis provide opportunities for innovation, driving people to act in more creative ways. Storytelling platforms which can be used in publications, press guidelines and digital and media campaigns, are gradually beginning to share space with advertising. This in-house material is a reliable source of information, for both internal and external audiences. It is down to us journalists to find opportunities and harness them.
SERGE GIACOMO Brazilians already have creativity in their DNA, in the way we develop and implement projects on a daily basis. In tough economic times, we see this even more. It is challenging, but we love challenges. For Brazilian communicators, the secret is to ensure a strong combination of business strategy with communications goals to make efficient projects and, at the same time, innovative ones. An example of this is to be more connected with the teams from different regions to leverage initiatives that bring value to the brand.
To change focus to the rest of the continent: with your career experiences in both Europe and Latin America, what would you say are the main differences in approach to corporate communications in both regions?
SERGE GIACOMO It may sound like a cliché, but European communication practice is more structured, based on analysis of data and facts, whereas Latin American communications are based more on creativity, relationship-building and experiences. I’m very lucky to have worked in these two environments. The two are extremely complementary and, when combined, can be really powerful.
NELSON SILVEIRA Public relations and corporate communications in mature markets like Europe and the US are in a very advanced stage. However with globalisation and the expansion of internet, emerging markets are catching up in terms of approach and public relations strategies. We have lately experienced major developments in corporate communications in most Latin American countries. Today most of the major global agencies have established branches in the region, either on a standalone basis or by acquiring local enterprises.
What about the relationship between journalists and corporate communicators here?
NELSON SILVEIRA There are important cultural differences. Latin American media tends to have a more friendly approach. European media is more aggressive and critical. But on the other side it is more difficult to do background work with media in the Latin American region, because journalists tend not to respect off the record conversations. In Europe, media has a different understanding on the benefits of the background information on writing stories. But in general there are strong media groups on both continents with great editorial independence.
BETH GARCIA The Brazilian press seems to have some peculiarities that are a bit unfamiliar to European clients. Just to give an example, here the social columns in the newspapers are considered prestigious for business too, so it is not uncommon for brands to offer them firsthand information before releasing it to all media outlets. Also we have noticed in some cases that international clients expect a preview of the article before it is published, but this request tends not to be well received by Brazilian journalists. In the past years we have been witnessing the downsizing of newsrooms – evidently we feel sympathetic towards our many colleagues who are leaving their jobs. However, something has caught our attention: while print media is struggling to find its new place, remaining mediums have gained even greater credibility and brands seem to be willing to experiment with other communication platforms.
What are the toughest challenges facing a corporate communicator working in Latin America?
SERGE GIACOMO The main risk, as in any other region of the world, is to believe that what works or not in one country will definitely be the same in the other countries, i.e. “if it works in Brazil, it’ll certainly work in Mexico”… but the same can be applied in Europe: can we say that the Finns and the Maltese think and act the same? The reward is the other side of the coin: once you understand the cultural differences, manage to use them in favour of your communications objectives and see great results.
BETH GARCIA In the past years the communication market began to converge – agencies are expanding their portfolio of services as both brands and public expect more consistency across all platforms. This is both a challenge and an upside, as it requires 360º comprehension of the business but it is also is exciting for communication professionals interested in developing multiple skills. Even if you are specialised in a certain area, you are expected to work together with a multidisciplinary team.
THIANE LOUREIRO I think that the most gratifying aspect of working in Latin America is learning about different cultures. Being able to understand the different landscapes is amazing. I guess the risks are related to that as well: developing inefficient strategies or making gaffes due to not knowing what connects with people, how they operate, their expectations and what they can understand.
Are there unique difficulties in communicating in Latin America for companies based in Europe?
THIANE LOUREIRO I believe that the challenges have less to do with the company´s headquarter and more to do with the complexity and diversity of Latin America. Here at Grünenthal the countries have a lot of autonomy to decide on the best communication strategy and message to support the business. Most of our regional and global campaigns are well aligned with local needs but, yes, we have the freedom do adapt the strategy if necessary. I always involve the local communications teams on regional initiatives since the beginning – from brainstorming to planning – so when the campaign is ready to be executed it already takes into consideration the countries’ inputs.
And what kind of communication challenges face international companies looking to enter the Latin-American market this year?
SERGE GIACOMO When you look at Latin America from a macro perspective, it is tough and many companies probably think it is time to stay away from the region… But when you look at it from the micro perspective, you see many exciting opportunities! That’s what the smartest companies are doing.
THIANE LOUREIRO Any company that wants to operate or expand operations in Latin America needs to be open to listening, learning and adjusting. The one size fits all approach does not always work and it is important to create a culture where empowerment and accountability are encouraged. This year, most countries face increased inflation, devaluated currencies and contracted economies while Brazil and Venezuela are also going through a political turmoil. The scenario is of volatility and uncertainty. Entrepreneurship and innovation are key growth drivers. Above all, companies need to keep trust high among clients, consumers and employees and for that they need to be transparent, authentic, caring and inspiring.
"Any company that wants to operate or expand operations in Latin AMerica needs to be open to listening."
What have been some of the biggest trends in Latin American communications in the past few years?
SERGE GIACOMO As in other parts of the world, some of the big trends have been the growth of digital, the role social networks are playing in communications. This is affecting the entire communications sector, some benefiting from it, some losing ground, that’s part of life. Another interesting point is the fact that, in Latin America, advertising is becoming an increasingly powerful tool used as a support to public relations, whereas in other parts of the world the two areas act mostly in parallel. This is quite unique, I believe.
NELSON SILVEIRA To face globalisation and the digital revolution, two movements that are changing the way people consume and interact with information, communications is rapidly changing. Content marketing and storytelling have been major trends recently. To succeed in such a fragmented environment, communicators are realising the need to focus efforts on developing great stories enveloped by innovative formats and customised to specific audiences.
THIANE LOUREIRO Digital communications. Companies in Latin America are still entering the social media environment and learning how to operate in this space. Some are more advanced than others but the market in general is on a higher level of maturity compared to five years ago.
"In Latin America, advertising is becoming an increasingly powerful tool used as a support to public relations."
And what does the future hold for Latin-America communications?
SERGE GIACOMO A bright future, I have no doubt. Just add creative bright minds to world-class companies investing in the region to high qualified professionals leaving college… this cocktail will certainly be a winning one.
THIANE LOUREIRO I believe that digital will continue to be trendy, with more companies taking advantage of owned, earned and paid media while also making their employee communications more interactive and connected. Mobile is also going to become bigger as many companies have already started to adopt WhatsApp as a key communications tool. Video will continue to be an important platform with Snapchat and Periscope gaining popularity. And business intelligence: in order to create better communications and business strategies companies will increase investments in data mining and other research/analytical tools.
Is it even possible to speak of a “Latin American corporate communications landscape” or does its diversity prove too much of a challenge?
SERGE GIACOMO There are common aspects across the region, of course. And the global international companies operating in the region also bring some level of homogeneity to the profession as many are US or EU-native companies with quite similar practices and procedures operating across the world. But the local cultural differences should not be forgotten or underestimated. On the contrary, to be successful from Mexico to Tierra del Fuego, one needs to play both on the commonalities and differences.
NELSON SILVEIRA I believe its diversity prove too much of a challenge. We have to consider that the biggest player in Latina America, Brazil, has Portuguese as the official language, and the others, Spanish. And even between the countries speaking Spanish, there are major cultural, economic and political differences. So geography is not enough to configure an integrated landscape.
BETH GARCIA Undoubtedly it is a diverse region, but certain trends we experience in Brazil can be seen in other Latin American countries as well. Approach is currently leading the articulation of multiple Latin American agencies, forming a network called RELAMCE. This network allows us to manage the positioning and imaging of major brands across the continent.
THIANE LOUREIRO I think that diversity is a challenge and is what makes Latin America so unique. Instead of trying to create a homogeneous landscape companies should have good local teams and empower them to take the best decisions considering their local culture, language and needs. •
Beth Garcia, Serge Giacomo, Thiane Loureiro and Nelson Silveira sit on the jury of the Latin American Excellence Awards, hosted by Communication Director. For more about the awards, visit www.excellence-awards.com