If it’s crafted for everyone, it’s consumed by no one. A good employee experience addresses their needs and speaks their language. 

When I started working with a global chemicals manufacturer headquartered in Germany, with production sites in Europe, the Americas and Asia, the communications director assured me that I wouldn’t have to worry about language barriers to reach employees.

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“Everyone in this industry is highly educated,” she told me. “English is the only language we use.”

A few weeks later, during a visit to one of its production sites in Belgium, I asked the plant manager about the content he received from the corporate headquarters.

He looked confused. “I don’t share any of it,” he told me. He went on to explain that according to Belgian labor law, communications with line-level employees had to be in local language.

The Belgian law in question applies to HR documents, and his interpretation of that law may have been overly strict. Regardless, all of the content we worked so hard on – including safety campaigns for line-level workers – was seen there only by managers.

To reach line-level employees, the site’s plant managers produced a newsletter of their own, without any involvement from corporate. They made their own creative choices, so their use of the company’s brand visuals was haphazard and untrained. As to the content’s verbal content, we couldn’t really judge. None of us spoke Dutch.

Any company that claims its ‘corporate language is English’ is simply wrong.

Even if every online meeting or conference call is in English, that doesn’t mean that the organization conducts all of its business in that language.

Local language, culture, and operational details matter, and they make each setting unique in ways that a centralized approach will struggle to accommodate.

Local comms in local language

Throughout any global organization, HR personnel create reference documents and content that they’re often legally required to share with employees in local language. If your intranet doesn’t allow them to post content relevant to their jurisdiction, you may be encouraging them to create their own channels.

These multiplying sources of company information not only make for bad employee experience, it makes the corporate content channel less essential. Instead of a central source for truth, the global channel becomes a deserted island, populated only by unread, global content.

Ignorable corporate content

People are reflexively drawn to their native language. Even if people speak and understand English well, it may not be the language they use to conduct daily business. In that environment, English content flags itself as corporate, global, and alien. It just doesn’t seem urgent to pay attention to it.

Change communications

On the ground, managers know that English content has limited reach. If it’s a change initiative, or if you expect managers to share messaging with line-level employees, making the case in local language is especially important.

I’ve been on many pre-launch conference calls, with initiatives ready for rollout, only to have project managers stymied when they’re asked about translations for China or Germany. (And yes, that includes highly educated workforces in pharma and chemicals.)

During the project manager’s stunned silence, realizing that no translations were in the works, the Chinese or German participant patiently explains that if they expect employees to take action, they’re going to need good local-language versions.

Local offices adapt content, with or without you

I once visited a client’s facility in Prague. The employees were mostly blue-collar and had no access to the company’s online content. HR wanted to share and adapt that content, but because the team didn’t have flexible tools to achieve it, they devised their own awkward workaround.

Throughout the facility they taped up printouts of corporate-produced, English-language content, and next to each they printed out and attached small translations. They told me – in a bit of an understatement – that it wasn’t ideal, but they couldn’t imagine an alternative.

If global companies translate for employees, they usually do it for their largest language groups. With only 10 million total speakers, Czech is not one that is usually considered, so local staff are left alone to come up with their own solutions.

In markets where you don’t have people dedicated to communications, it would be better if local offices could easily work with the content themselves. If corporate doesn’t provide a standard translation, local communicators should be able to easily swap out verbal content and replace it with their own language.

Don’t fight these local differences. Embrace them.

Finding ways to communicate with employees so that it’s in their language and culturally appropriate will be more complex, but once you commit to it, you’ll find even more tempting opportunities.

The people responsible for localizing communications will also be in a position to tailor communications that are specific to local business needs.

The business in Germany may be more focused on the automotive industry compared to other countries, while in Ireland they concentrate on pharmaceutical companies. If you can get local business units to take responsibility for high-quality communications and incorporate their own operational details, the recipients know that it’s for them.

Localization isn’t an additional barrier; it’s an opportunity to reach people closer to home. It’s a fine tuning of your business that should be encouraged.

Localizing and targeting employee communications

Step one: provide access to channel measurement

In order to optimize content, we have to know whether local markets are engaging with it. As a first step to localizing internal content, you have to measure communication channels.

And yet I’ve seen many companies not measuring readership at all, or keeping the keys to these tools safely at corporate.

With one client, if I wanted to know about traffic to a specific piece of intranet content, I needed to email someone at headquarters, who a few weeks later would send me a pdf with the requested numbers.

Of course by then, the numbers were too old to act on, and I couldn’t interact with the data. If I saw something interesting that I wanted to explore, I had to follow up with another request and wait patiently. If I didn’t manage to frame my inquiry correctly from the outset, I was stuck with the stale data that I got.

Measurement should be broadly available to the people who work on communications, whether they’re a team of fully dedicated internal communications professionals at the corporate office, or a single marketing specialist in a small country dedicated to it only part time.

Step two: target audiences as precisely as possible

When I talked to European employees of one Global 100 company about its intranet, they sincerely believed the channel was for American employees only. Its content was so irrelevant to their experience, they assumed they shouldn’t even be looking at it.

That mistaken belief is not so unique. I have lived in Europe for 12 years, and I often serve clients from what is a regional or country office. When I ask people in those facilities about content, more often than not, they look at me in the same way that the plant manager in Belgium did. They either don’t think the content is intended for them, or they don’t find it helpful to their daily work.

The communications profession needs to change this sad state for the better. We need to facilitate content that is relevant to people’s daily experience, and we can do that by making sure that it has local detail.

We have to acknowledge that we can’t craft it centrally from headquarters. We need to find local stakeholders who can shape and adapt local channels. We need to give them access to tools so that they can easily select what’s useful to them, adapt it to their most pressing needs, and easily share it with the right groups.

Step three: enable content people want to consume

In their personal lives, people consume media in increasingly smaller bites. Long-form content has its place, but social media has shown us that organizations need to share messaging in people’s preferred formats, including video, infographics, and memes.

While companies now expect internal professional communication professionals to be savvy in many types of media, they are no longer the only ones creating content. People from every discipline are turning to enterprise social, and the biggest barriers for these new communicators is often visual. They simply don’t have the tools, skills or budget to make their content look good.

Brand guidelines are not enough. They are often an off putting, overly detailed book of specs that only trained designers understand. One solution is to provide quick access to people with design skills who know those standards well.

Better yet, we can give them tools that make it easy for them to select and adapt content. 

If we don’t, they will do it on their own with basic tools, and the final result could garble the message, make a mess of the visual brand, and lower credibility.

If channels aren’t easy, attractive and fast, they will create their own, and then we’re back to all-text Word docs taped to a wall.

Back at corporate, we can help them with key messages, best practice advice, and channel measurement. This would be working behind the scenes to help them optimize their communications and address their local culture and business realities.

A post-COVID-19 world: why local content is even more important today

For communications professionals, one of the more surprising impacts of COVID-19 on our work was the level to which local countries rose to the occasion and managed communications themselves. That’s because the timing and degree of restrictions have differed by country and even local jurisdiction. All of a sudden, news announcements and working protocols were no longer global.

Empowering local communications is greater insurance during a crisis like COVID-19.

Having the agility to communicate changing conditions is not just a legal requirement, it’s a moral obligation. As countries evolve their COVID-19 restrictions, there is going to be even more variety and complexity, and inaccurate or confusing information is dangerous.

💡Read on: Remote Work: 20 Ways to Engage and Connect with Your Remote Employees

About Ray: Ray Walsh is an American communications consultant based in Prague. For 20 years he has supported global clients in a variety of industries, and in-house for companies including UPS and DXC Technology. He is the author of Localizing Employee Communications: A Handbook (Content Wrangler/XML Press, 2020). He has worked in Germany, Belgium and the Czech Republic for a combined 17 years.

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