The Art of Cultural Awareness and Sensitivity


Sally Maier

This month marks my two-year anniversary at Gong Communications and my four-year anniversary of living and working in London.

Having worked in the public relations industry in Hong Kong, Singapore and now London, people often ask me questions like “How do you find working in London as opposed to Asia?” or “I am moving to Hong Kong/Shanghai/Beijing. Do you have any tips for me?”

I still remember the single most valuable piece of advice, given to me by my old boss in Singapore before I moved to London. He said, “Sally, when you work in London, you have to try to be less blunt.”

I said: “What do you mean?”

My boss said: “For example, instead of saying ‘Do this for me please’, say ‘When you have a spare moment, would you mind doing this for me please?”

I said: “Oh, isn’t that a bit of a long winded way of saying the same thing?”

My boss said: “You will learn.”

This is just one of the many examples of cultural differences between working in the East and the West. The art of building cross-cultural sensitivity and awareness in the workplace and in our everyday life has become ever more important in today’s globalised world. For instance, at Gong Communications we are a small team but between us were born, brought up or have lived in countries including China (Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong), Singapore, Kenya, Ghana, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Madagascar, Tanzania, Uganda, France, Italy, New Zealand, UK and the US.

Here is a checklist of cultural sensitivity and awareness based on my personal experiences of working in the UK and Asia and working with companies around the world:

1. Communications method: When communicating with Asian or African markets where English is often not the native language, identify the preferred method of communication (both verbal and non-verbal). For example, in most Asian countries, emailing is often preferred as the primary communications channel, as this provides people sufficient time to digest information rather than feeling obliged to give an immediate response over the phone. Also consider if translation is needed. At Gong, I have found that Asia or Africa based clients or suppliers often prefer emailing to phoning whilst UK-based clients usually prefer calls. Having said that, regular face-to-face meetings are still crucial for effective communications.

2. Degree of politeness: As a Hong Konger working in London married to a French man, I realise the way Chinese people communicate can sometimes come across as “blunt” or even “rude” in the Western world whilst the way Westerners communicate can be considered “too polite” or even “fake” to someone from the East. My old boss’ advice is an example of this. It is not for me to say which is wrong or right, but it is important to bear this difference in mind to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings or hard feelings.

3. Reading between the lines: Since I was young I have loved learning English, but it was only after I moved to London that I started to fully experience and understand the depth of English as a daily means of communication. I found it confusing and frustrating at times as I made mistakes by literally taking people’s words at face value. Being aware of this cultural difference has enabled me to become a better communicator/manager at work. I now have a more complete understanding of what clients or colleagues are asking for or of picking up on the nuances within a piece of feedback.

4. Brainstorm: I found the working culture in London (and especially at Gong) to be generally collaborative, creative and entrepreneurial whilst in Asia (Hong Kong and Singapore) it tends to be more hierarchical, formal and practical. For example, in London, work brainstorm sessions are very common whilst in Asia they are not as popular as people are not used to randomly contributing ideas in front of a big group of people. Instead they often prefer to do their own research and then come up with ideas individually. This is important to know when trying to gather information and ideas effectively and efficiently from colleagues of different nationalities.

5. Trust: As the world has become more culturally and ethnically diverse, work ethics such as honesty, respect and diligence remain of vital importance in the global work place. Trust is still the most essential foundation on which to build a long-term relationship with clients, bosses, colleagues and friends regardless of their nationality or where they live. In this more digitalised and mobile age, there are no secrets and the safest way to communicate is to live up to your own principles and be yourself while being sensitive to the cultural differences of those around you.


The Africa Trade and Economic Cooperation Forum 2013


Isabelle Alenus-Crosby

Optimising Africa’s transportation infrastructure in order to increase international trade was top of the agenda at the 12th United States-Sub-Saharan Africa Trade and Economic Cooperation Forum (AGOA 2013) held last week at the African Union Headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) was signed into law by President Clinton in May 2000 with the objective of expanding U.S. trade and investment with sub-Saharan Africa and to facilitate the region’s integration into the global economy.

Since the inception of AGOA, there has been a 300 % increase in total two-way trade between the United States and the African continent, and 2012 was proclaimed to have been the most successful year thus far.

With the current Act expiring in September 2015, this year’s Forum concluded that for the initiative to remain successful, Africa’s top priority is now to expand its trade infrastructure. Especially landlocked countries are currently unable to take full advantage of the opportunities that AGOA offers. Most of the roads connected to ports are congested, creating transportation bottlenecks not seen anywhere else in the world. For instance, it takes 24 days for a container to travel from Mombasa to Kigali and 20 days for a container to be cleared at the port of Dar es Salaam.

An integrated transportation network is therefore so crucial that according to some delegates Africa’s continued success depends almost entirely on it. A call to extend the Act for another 15 years has already been proposed by the African Union, and President Obama’s office has vowed to better communicate the enormous potential that this could mean for investors worldwide.


The future of scandal-hit hedge funds


Sara Firouzyar

Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted SAC Capital, the Connecticut based hedge fund with c.US$15 billion funds under management, of insider trading.

The indictment, and a related civil case seeking forfeitures and money laundering penalties, imperils the future of the hedge fund and adds to a recent string of high profile corporate scandals rocking the financial services sector.

The US government has accused SAC of presiding over a culture where employees not only flouted the law but were encouraged to tap their personal networks of contacts for inside information about publicly traded companies; all suggesting a chronic failure in the fund’s compliance function.

SAC Capital is just the most recent example of the cost of compliance oversights for global financial institutions. Even with the best of intentions, those that fail to undertake rigorous due diligence and embed a culture of compliance, lay themselves open to scrutiny from increasingly unforgiving regulators and markets.

In light of these recent scandals and with the chaos of Enron and Madoff not too far behind us, much has been said about what can be done to make compliance and ethics programmes more than just corporate window dressing. Some have argued for the creation of a C-level compliance officer: someone with the experience and mandate to actually make things happen in the organisation.

Gong’s client True Office argues that compliance shouldn’t be confined to a single individual or to boardroom strategy documents – it should be equally embraced by every member of an organisation. In a recent Wall Street Journal article True Office CEO, Adam Sodowick, believes this can be achieved through the tactical use of gamification. Gamified compliance training, he says, creates an authentic experience that employees can relate to and apply to their role; changing a mandatory task that is often perceived as dull into a thought-provoking and sensory, ‘play-based’ experience.

However you want to play it, one thing is clear – it’s time for companies, and policymakers, to reject a tick-box approach to compliance programmes, and get much more serious about ensuring that integrity remains at the heart of business.

Kickstarting Madagascar: Shining a light on Africa’s forgotten island


Sarah Nicholas

Freelance journalist and friend of Gong, Emilie Filou has set herself a challenge: to tackle the chronic under-reporting of Madagascar in the Anglophone press.

Madagascar sits between the African mainland, Indonesia, and the Indian sub-continent. While its neighbours tell a startling story of growth and attract ever increasing media interest, the fourth largest island in the world is often overlooked by the English-language press. Is the country an awkward anomaly in the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative, or a final frontier market waiting to sky rocket like its Asian neighbours across the Indian Ocean?

A quick search for ‘Madagascar’ throws up talking cartoon zebras and the occasional lemur, but next to nothing about the political vacuum of a country which has spent the past four years without a functioning government. Nor is there any mention of the huge potential of the island’s textile, mining, agriculture and tourism industries.

Emilie wants this radio silence to end.

She has launched a Kickstarter project to crowd-fund her way to Madagascar and report back in words and photographs, producing a series of dispatches to tell the world what is really happening:

When she came to see the Gong team this week Emilie told us, “After four and half years of political vacuum, Madagascar is now the second poorest country in the world. The economy has stalled because of international sanctions; foreign direct investment has all but dried up; and tourism has slumped. This is all the more tragic because the country has everything it needs to succeed: a young population, a wealth of natural resources (minerals, oil), a relatively well-educated workforce, unique biodiversity and outstanding natural beauty, and huge tracts of fertile agricultural land.

“I need your help to finance the trip – I work freelance and don’t have the support of a big news organisation. Kickstarter funding will allow me to travel to Madagascar for three weeks in September to gather material needed to shine a light on the plight of the Malagasy people and the fantastic potential of the country.”

Emilie wrote the Lonely Planet Guide to Madagascar and since her last trip there in 2011 has written regularly about the country for The Economist, BBC Travel and the Africa Report. She has now exhausted what can be done remotely. This fresh batch of articles will be published in the Anglophone press over the course of the autumn; any unpublished material will go on Emilie’s website.

You can pledge your support via Kickstarter, in return for reports, insights and photos from Emilie:


What are the advantages of choosing a public relations boutique in Africa?


Isabelle Alenus-Crosby

At Gong we work with companies in Africa, across a range of sectors, to raise their business profiles beyond local markets. In parallel, we position investors, focusing on Emerging Markets, at the forefront of international business reporting. We are a trusted partner that delivers high-quality news coverage, marketing materials, websites, advertisements, and content, resulting in excellent return on investment. However, we believe that the Top 3 advantages of working with a boutique agency are:

  • Personal touch – you’ll be working with a select, very carefully chosen team whose raison d’être is to get the job done.
  • Know your client – the team that pitches a piece of new business to you is the team that you’ll be working with when you become a client.
  • Well connected– a necessity, because the world is changing so quickly.  At a boutique agency, your team is always very flexible, nimble, and in the know.


If we look at the statistics for Africa, we can see that it is taking off much like China and India were a couple of decades ago. Africa’s collective GDP was USD 1.6 trillion in 2010, roughly the same as Russia, and by the end of this decade it will have grown by another trillion dollars (IMF).

Every other statistic is improving and increasing too: stability, consumer spending, discretionary income, urbanisation, population. PR professionals need to be able to take on the world at a moment’s notice. We bridge the gap between client and public by continuously keeping up with new trends and developments. The spending power of the newly emerging middle-class affects all companies in Africa, and it is important to know how to communicate to an audience that is becoming more sophisticated by the minute.

In newly emerging economies, the companies we work with are often setting the example: They are the trend-setters of a brand-new age. Often, they are playing catch-up, and in order to compete globally, with the ever increasing importance of the internet and social media, they need an experienced partner keeping all their fingers on every pulse. Ever since public relations agencies came into existence, boutique firms have had to cope with fewer layers of bureaucracy, and therefore move deftly through the phases of a brand-new campaign, providing services at a better price thanks to lower overheads. Need we go on?