In International Advocacy, Adapt Locally, Optimize Globally

04/22/2013 10:51 am ET | Updated Jun 22, 2013

In an increasingly interconnected global economy, the need to develop a global advocacy strategy has become essential to businesses and NGOs alike.

Effective advocacy efforts must ensure that the big picture doesn't inhibit actors from tailoring their efforts to the discrepancies of individual markets. After all, if you don't understand the subtleties of the distribution of power in a certain country, you will miss opportunities to deliver your message to the nation's key constituencies.

However, using a piecemeal advocacy approach to global operations rather than an overarching framework can lead to problems when Country A's strategy runs afoul of Country B's laws. Companies should ensure their outreach efforts are legal where there are rules and core principles are at stake, but otherwise seek to be flexible when facing unfamiliar cultural terrains.

Additionally a worldwide approach can allow companies to identify and optimize certain advocacy tactics. This approach also creates opportunities to engage several nations at once with similar approaches, stabilizing advocacy costs and garnering more consistent results.

These challenges are especially pronounced for multinational organizations in countries like China, which has not only a strong central government, but also local governments empowered by the belief that "the mountains are high and the emperor is far away."

Other emerging markets have their own difficulties. Brazil continues to advance its own form of state-directed capitalism; African nations present boundless opportunities, but lack in basic government frameworks and infrastructure; maturing democracies continue to modernize in Latin America; and monarchies the world over present their own unique individual challenges.

As emerging economies have grown, the avenues for advocacy have widened, but some tactics remain more effective than others. The proliferation of new laws and standards provide multiple outlets for companies wishing to shape those decisions.

Industry associations have sprung up across the world. Though essential components of any advocacy strategy, their effectiveness is often reduced to advancing what becomes the lowest common denominator among all their members.

As a result, many companies and advocacy organizations have resorted to direct lobbying to advance their interests. The growth in government affairs professionals in emerging markets is testament to the utility of direct engagement with political and regulatory entities throughout the country.

Despite these direct outreach efforts, many companies and NGOs have found the most success through a more indirect approach: strategic public relations. Framing issues and pushing policies through the media is an effective way to reach both government officials and the broader public. Media and government both rely on industry to supply business news and information. Industry is in a unique position to deliver, and can use their knowledge base and perceived expertise to advance outcomes beneficial to them if they can tie it to benefits for broader society.

Additionally, by filtering the message through the media, companies don't have to worry about appearing as if they are trying to unfairly influence decision makers in a smoky back room. However such outreach efforts must be customized to appeal to the cultural sensitivities unique to each geography, nation, and often regions within nations.

In all nations, knowing your audience and the right arenas in which to engage them are crucial to your success. In doing so it is essential to simultaneously adapt locally while optimizing globally. An effective advocacy plan requires the nuanced application of all the available tools -- strategic public relations, direct advocacy, and industry associations -- to advance policies that benefit organizational goals while addressing societal needs.

Hon. Mark R. Kennedy leads George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management and is Chairman of the Economic Club of Minnesota. He previously served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and was Senior Vice President and Treasurer of Federated Department Stores (now Macy's).