Localizing Employee Communications

Everyone at least slightly involved in the language industry is acutely aware of the fact that local language is critical for products to sell and for ideas to spread. But one final frontier seems to be uncharted: corporate content.


As Val Swisher, CEO of Content Rules, Inc., writes in her forward to Ray Walsh’s Localizing Employee Communications, “employee communications, the internal content that the corporate headquarters shares with employees worldwide, seems to be stuck in the dark English ages.” In his book, Walsh paints the picture of how English-proficient upper managers, living in their ivory towers, frequently assume that their entire organizations speak that language well enough. And how they conclude that, as result, there’s no need to localize or transcreate their internal communications.

The author is a keen observer of the realities and complexities of contemporary corporate life, especially in large organizations with an international footprint. He uses his actual professional experience to demonstrate how that approach is wrong, and how corporate communications, run from the center, often fall terribly flat despite their best intentions.

As Walsh observes, “Except for breaking news or mission critical messages, people postpone reading what’s not in their native language, if they read it at all… With time, the urgency passes and nothing bad happens. For audiences abroad, that cycle repeats, and they develop a detached attitude towards anything from the corporate office.”

The impact of not translating a product or service and its associated communications is typically missed sales, and is to a large extent measurable. In corporate communications, though, the impact is much less tangible, but no less severe. It lowers engagement, restricts collaboration and means much of the corporate communications efforts are, sadly, wasted.

The book shows why and how organizations can change that.

The author delves deep into the three clusters of content that exist in corporate communications. First, the locally generated content, written in local language but often “not in compliance with corporate standards and unrelated to company strategy.” Second, the corporate-generated content, which complies with corporate brand guidelines and is globally focused but written in English. And finally, the global/local hybrid content, where corporate works with local countries to translate, shape and deliver the content. In practice, this final cluster is much less frequent, and this book “is about finding ways to produce more deliverables in cluster three.”

In fact, Walsh goes a little further and promotes a model in which organizations translate almost nothing. Instead, most corporate communications should be created and deployed locally with only back-end support from global headquarters. So, instead of producing content for worldwide audiences, it should be authored locally with local audiences in mind.

But how to achieve this in the context of global organizations? The book details four localization models that are based on a continuum from greater central control to greater local autonomy. In the two centrally managed models, the local offices may have limited or greater flexibility. In the other two models, local teams can have strong or minimal guidance from the center. Each governance model has its strengths and weaknesses, and none are right or wrong. Organizations or business units may switch between the models as circumstances change.

The author does not prescribe one right way to go about things. Instead, Walsh provides options that organizations can choose from and embrace based on their specifics.

Regardless of the model adopted, he does, however, encourage everyone involved in corporate communications to build and nurture their networks: the people in local offices, on the ground, who help deliver content to in-country employees. Very often, they are formally outside the corporate communications function, yet critical for any localization program to succeed. They help bridge the gap between corporate and local experience. Their skills, aspirations and priorities will also differ across the various local markets and between small and large local presences. The author provides practical tips for how to work effectively with such an international network of local communicators, elevating their status along the way.

Localizing Employee Communications also walks readers through the nitty-gritty of managing translation, offering some low- or no-cost strategies that reflect the realities of corporate communications, for which much of the work may be done in-house. It touches on the practicalities of in-country reviews, creating style guides and brand guidelines and the specifics of visual communications, and argues passionately for measuring the readership and impact of internal content — something few organizations do.

Walsh’s core expertise is in content creation and writing, so it’s no surprise that the book is written in a clear, engaging and accessible style. This also allows him to argue for quality of source content, as he observes that “corporate functions continue to churn out bad English that arrogantly passes as universal.” Translation? Bad business writing makes it harder to go global.

The book draws from interviews with almost 30 practitioners from the internal communications discipline and other areas, as well as a wide range of other books, webinars, industry reports and resources. As such, it also describes the specific challenges in internal communications with, for instance, a nonemployee workforce or contractors. In these scenarios, extra caution is needed, not least for legal reasons, and “even content that the corporate office is confident will help people sell more or keep them safe must be framed not as orders, but as best practices that your company recommends rather than demands.” Plus, there are countries such as Germany where the complexity of their regulations, customs and preferences makes it difficult to localize employee communications.

The intended audience of this book is primarily people involved with corporate communications, whether working in the headquarters or local offices. Based on real-life experience, the book is sure to resonate with them and give them plenty of ideas on how to rethink and hopefully improve their current approach. But it also gives language services providers plenty of evidence to show their clients the importance of proper localization and how to achieve effective global content no matter the audience.

By the same token, LSPs very often have international footprints as well, and thus are not immune to the challenges related to internal communications. As such, advice provided in the book can help them practice what they preach.

When it comes to global corporate communications, Ray Walsh has been there, seen it, and even got several corporate t-shirts that show what works and what doesn’t. I love this quote from the book: “Inform in English, persuade in local language.” Chances are this much-needed book will help organizations conquer the corporate content frontier by showing them how to provide localized content that achieves just that.