The wisdom of taxi drivers

Portland New York’s new General Manager, Charles McLean, on lessons learned as a travelling communications professional.

Let’s start with the obvious: working abroad poses some special challenges for communications professionals.  Many of these challenges are technical (unreliable power supplies, hard-to-find internet connections, broken elevators), and some of them are personal (long periods away from friends and family).  But the rewards are just as obvious: you get to play your game on the Big Stage.

I’ve been doing this work for the better part of fifteen years, and if you count my years as a television journalist, my international career spans twenty-five years or more. For all that, I would probably have to say that I’m no better at figuring out how to get my visa renewed or how to get a better deal on currency exchange than anyone else. Want to get a good price on a carpet in the souk?  I’m not your guy.
What I have learned over the years is how to be a better listener.
I think one of the biggest mistakes PR professionals make when they arrive in a new country is to believe that what they read back in the office or flying in on the plane is all they need to know.  Arriving unprepared would be foolish, but thinking you know all you need to know because you’ve read an Economist Country Report and a State Department briefing paper is almost as shortsighted.  Hackneyed observation but true: there’s no substitute for first-hand experience.
It’s worth underscoring this point because nowadays it has become so easy to gather background information with a quick internet search or to confer with clients on a Skype video link.  It’s easy, in fact, to provide what passes for client service without ever leaving the office.  But don’t kid yourself.  Advising international clients without spending time on the ground is a disservice to both you and the client.
Assuming you get on the plane and find your way to Ulan Bator, what can you expect to learn that you didn’t already know from the internet profile in Wikipedia or the Lonely Planet Guide to Mongolia?  For starters, you may find that government officials and business leaders present themselves, their ideas and their country or their businesses very differently at home than they do when they’re abroad.  And in-country, you have a chance to speak with vice-presidents, vice-ministers, project directors, locally-based diplomats and NGO representatives, all of whom might be harder to reach from the comfort of your office back home.
But the best listening and learning opportunities often come in humbler settings.  Assuming you’re lucky enough to be able to communicate with the locals in English (or able to speak the native tongue) you can learn a great deal from a conversation with a taxi driver, a hotel desk clerk, a pharmacist or even from the woman who counts your shirts at the dry cleaner’s.  And the insights you gain from these encounters can provide a valuable context for what you learn from government officials and corporate leaders.
The accumulated insights gained from in-country experience all factor into what I believe to be the most important part of a successful communications strategy: accurate situation analysis.  Strategy, tactics and messages all flow from a deep and thoughtful understanding of the challenges the client is facing.  Understanding those challenges – and being able to articulate them clearly – is, in my opinion, at the very heart of the client relationship.  No one hires you or trusts you to solve their problems if they’re not confident that you “get it.”  And in my experience, you can’t “get it” from your desk in New York or London.
In the past year I’ve served Portland clients in the United Arab Emirates and in Kazakhstan – five months in Dubai and two months in Astana.  Both were memorable experiences and both taught me a lot I didn’t know.
The clippings I read on the way to Dubai prepared me to arrive in a city-state on the verge of collapse, with abandoned Porsches and Bentleys littering the airport parking lot.  Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohamed, was described as a despairing Ozymandias, watching his dreams dry up in the desert sands as Dubai’s real estate boom went bust.
From taxi drivers and bankers and artists and waiters, I learned that Dubai has a vibrant local economy that’s far more diversified than most outsiders realize.  It’s full of optimistic and forward-thinking people – including Sheikh Mohamed – who are determined to make Dubai the commercial and financial capital of the region.  It’s also, hands down, the most socially and culturally progressive city in the Middle East.  I never spotted an abandoned Bentley at the airport, but driving around Dubai I often thought to myself, “This is what tomorrow looks like.”
Kazakhstan was also a surprise.  I knew better than to expect characters out of Borat, but I didn’t expect to meet so many sophisticated and cosmopolitan people from virtually all walks of life.  It turns out that for the past seventeen years, Kazakhstan’s government has been sponsoring an international higher education program for about 3000 of its most promising students annually, and that tens of thousands of Kazakhstan’s business leaders, teachers and civil servants now boast degrees from places like George Washington University and the London School of Economics.  Who knew?
And if you expect to be smothered by the suffocating bureaucracy of an oppressive, post-Soviet state, well, again, Kazakhstan will surprise you.  Democracy is only twenty years old in this former Soviet republic, but there is a discernible appetite for political reform and a clear sense of pride among Kazakhstan’s citizens about what has already been accomplished.  You’ll hear it from the students at the university and from their parents on the job, and trust me, it will turn your preconceptions about the place upside down.
Woody Allen famously said, “80% of success is showing up,” and I think that’s especially true with international PR.  The place to show up is in-country, where your clients live and work.  If you keep your eyes and ears open, and arrive with an open mind, you’ll learn a lot.  And it’s a sure bet your clients will benefit enormously from your deeper insights, your more informed views and your broader perspective.
Charles McLean recently joined Portland New York as its new General Manager. His career includes postings in markets as diverse as the Middle East, Africa and Kazakhstan.