8 Tips for Engaging Multicultural Audiences

PR pros know: it’s sometimes tough to communicate with members of cultures that are largely unfamiliar with your brand and its message.

The Metropolitan Group, a firm with offices in several cities across the U.S., describes itself as “a social change agency” combining “communications strategy with social good to create a more just and sustainable world”. One of its specialties is multicultural/cross-cultural communications services.

Today we bring you our take on a list of eight tips for engaging multicultural audiences via the group’s president and founder, Eric Friedenwald-Fishman.

He advises communications pros working on multi-cultural campaigns to:

1. Check all assumptions at the door. One can’t assume that cultural values/beliefs are universal, and miscommunication can lead to disasters no matter how good your intentions. Friedenwald-Fishman writes of a Portland-based public health campaign to lower infant mortality rates among low-income women by improving their healthcare knowledge:

 “Turns out that these women already knew how to have healthy pregnancies but lacked support from male partners in making changes necessary for healthy babies. So instead, health officials developed a campaign targeting men and infant mortality among these groups declined.”

 2. Do your homework. This is an obvious step too often overlooked by ambitious communicators. Friedenwald-Fishman writes: “The more you learn about the specific communities you want to engage, the more specific and effective your communication and outreach strategies can be”. In short, speak to others with real-world experience in these communities and don’t be afraid to enlist them directly in your outreach efforts.

3. Invest before you request. In an elaboration on the previous point, Metropolitan suggests that communicators spend time attending community events, participating in related forums both on and offline, and building trust among community members to facilitate a more mutually beneficial relationship. In other words, reading the research of others usually isn’t good enough. You have to be present.

4. Develop authentic relationships and maintain a long-term perspective. Truly successful communicators can’t just achieve their objectives and move on—they should make commitments that last longer than a single project in the long-term interests of all parties. Friedenwald-Fishman gives an example:

 “New Seasons Market is a chain of grocery stores in Oregon…[that] has opened several stores in underserved neighborhoods. [The company’s] CEO and other leaders began attending neighborhood meetings” to garner “community feedback on store location, product mix and service needs. They began hiring and recruiting from the neighborhood for jobs in their other stores while new stores were in development. They participated in priority neighborhood projects, from street tree plantings to sponsoring a youth entrepreneurship program at one store site.”

These efforts have proven especially beneficial to both the chain and the communities it serves.

5. Build shared ownership. Don’t just get involved in the community—get the community involved. Friedenwald-Fishman writes:

The National Lewis and Clark Bicentennial commemoration was being planned in the shadow of the controversial 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in America. From the start, the descendants of the tribes and bands that explorers Lewis and Clark encountered were part of a national coalition formed to determine the goals, vision and strategy of the Bicentennial. The coalition decided that the point of the commemoration should not be to tell Lewis and Clark’s story, but rather to tell many stories through the diverse perspectives of this historic journey and the impact it had on all peoples.”

This collaborative spirit encouraged millions of Americans to participate and made the effort more successful.

6. Lead by example. This is a classic PR principle that is especially relevant when dealing with communities that may assume that you act only in your own self-interest. To simplify: “If you commit to collaboration, then you must behave collaboratively.”

7. Relate, don’t translate. Speaking a native language isn’t good enough—communicators must “embrace the social nuances of diverse cultural groups” and look to members of said communities for guidance in order to create more successful campaigns that speak directly to the individuals who live in these communities rather than talking down to them.

8. Anticipate change: Understand that, when working with communities unfamiliar to you, you must be prepared to adapt and change your strategy when goals and circumstances change. Friedenwald-Fishman writes of a national bilingual early-literacy initiative targeting the Latino population:

“The traditional message of “Read to your children so they will be better prepared for school” does not resonate as well in the Latino community due to a belief by some segments of the community that learning begins in school, not at home. The campaign’s focus group research guided the development of a message framework that centered on succeeding in life, rather than the dominant literacy message frame. Latino cultural strengths such as storytelling, and rhymes and singing were emphasized…the message frame highlighted how talking, telling stories and singing to children could be incorporated into parents’ daily activities.”

PR pros: Do we have experience working with multicultural audiences? What do we think of Friedenwald-Fishman’s suggestions? Do we have any of our own?