“International public relations” is a specialization of practice that routinely, if not primarily, spans the borders of nation-states. International practitioners may work for public relations firms, civil society (nongovernmental) organizations or governments at several levels. However, these practitioners (either in-house or as specialists within public relations firms) more commonly represent multinational or transnational corporations that have global stakeholders because these organizations obtain their raw materials, their labor and/or their markets worldwide. Using this definition, an American practitioner representing a German organization to publics in that country would not be practicing “international public relations,” while a German practitioner representing a German-based corporation to American publics would be an international practitioner. Some practitioners accept longtime assignments or lengthy rotations at international sites, while others may be based domestically, but will travel extensively, i.e., they may be in an airplane or in a foreign country as often as they are in their home offices.
Some public relations professionals prefer the label “global public relations,” noting correctly that “international public relations” is not only misleadingly imprecise, but is in fact a deceiving misnomer. They argue that: 1) practitioners, scholars/educators and students worldwide are rapidly coalescing into a global professional community that increasingly shares universal professional values and best practices, with decreasing national distinctions in public relations practice; and 2) the populations of many nation-states are, themselves, highly multicultural, if not globally represented, and thus the assumption that discrete “nation-states” are themselves homogeneous is naively erroneous, i.e., in this sense practitioners for domestic organizations must operate within a global context because of the multicultural diversity within their own countries. And, of course, all practice is international to the extent that what happens elsewhere in the world can affect practitioners’ domestic organizations in myriad ways.
International public relations has been practiced at some levels since the evolution of public relations as a professionalized occupation, although the number of practitioners in this specialization has grown markedly in recent years. Organizations need specialists who have particular knowledge and skills to practice in a range of social, political, economic and cultural environments. These specialists must have the strategic, tactical and technical knowledge and skills that are required of all public relations practitioners, but they require additional education and experience that increase the breadth and depth of their worldview to enable them to better understand, appreciate and respect publics worldwide. International public relations practitioners must perform strategically as interpreters, ethicists and social policy-makers in guiding organizational behavior in the global arena, and they must take strategic responsibility for influencing and reconciling public perceptions of their organizations worldwide.
International public relations practitioners must be both urbane and cosmopolitan, i.e., true world citizens who are comfortable in a range of greatly different environments. Successful practitioners must be consummate students of global society, with a longitudinal, i.e., historical, understanding of their clients’ indigenous societies as well as a latitudinal understanding of contemporary global society, and they must constantly monitor and interpret world events for their clients. Of course, protocols must be understood, and fluency of indigenous languages is highly desired. The need for strong liberal arts education is obvious, as is specific knowledge about world history, intercultural communication, political science and economics. Knowledge of indigenous laws and legal systems is particularly important. While the types of activities that international practitioners perform may resemble those of their domestic counterparts, and while their publics may resemble typical categories of domestic publics, nevertheless unusual challenges exist because of oftentimes significantly different social, political, economic and cultural influences at international sites.
New pros often feel it must be difficult to break into international public relations. Of course, new pros will need to seek employment in organizations that are international in their scope or in firms that have international clients who seek relationships with publics in yet other international sites (definitionally, a practitioner who represents an international client in the practitioner’s native country is not practicing international public relations, although working with his international client will require the practitioner’s international knowledge). However, multinational corporations oftentimes welcome young practitioners who volunteer for long-term international assignments, particularly if these new professionals have prepared themselves well for these positions. Senior-level international public relations practitioners are quick to mentor protégés who have a primary interest in international careers. Many resources also exist for those who want such careers, e.g., the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, the International Public Relations Association, the International Council of the Public Relations Society of America, the International Association of Business Communicators, the U.S.-based Institute for Public Relations (and its Commission on Global Public Relations) and the U.K.-based Chartered Institute of Public Relations.
For students, public relations curricula in many universities offer courses in international public relations, and at least one university’s public relations education program offers a certificate in international public relations. Several public relations textbooks have a strong international orientation, and a few textbooks focus on this specialization. Graduate education in related areas, e.g., international relations and intercultural communication, can also be helpful.
The time undoubtedly will come when labels such as “international” public relations will be redundant because all public relations practice will be global. However, until then, international public relations will be in increasing demand by contemporary organizations in a 21st Century global society. It represents an exciting opportunity for those with the knowledge, skills and abilities to practice this specialization.
Dr. Dean Kruckeberg, APR, Fellow PRSA, is executive director of the Center for Global Public Relations and a tenured full professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.