Considering culture in crisis

In crisis communications, speed of response is crucial, but so too is relevant cultural context.

When research reveals that public relations executives who are responsible for international communications aren’t monitoring what is being said about their company’s or client’s business in the languages of the countries they trade in, how can they be aware if anyone is saying a bad word about them?

Yet in today’s world, where one opinionated social media influencer with thousands of followers commenting about an organisation in a negative way can cause the domino effect and generate an impetuous crisis situation, the reputation of a brand is highly vulnerable.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and that is why constantly monitoring the news, online and offline, is crucial. Building and maintaining positive relationships with key journalists and online influencers is invaluable when managing a crisis. 

Monitoring missing

The lack of monitoring in relevant languages is just one of a number of surprising findings that are the result of a new report by translation and localisation agency, Conversis, entitled, The Importance of Understanding Language and Culture When Managing an International Crisis. For example, 15% of UK respondents who had responsibility for international crisis communications said they only monitor the news and/or social media in English, which begs the question whether they would even know if a crisis was happening in a particular territory even if it was trending on their social media monitoring tool of choice?

According to Gary Muddyman, chief executive officer of Conversis, “When a crisis does strike, the speed in response is vital, but even more importantly, the content needs to be factual and empathetic. What might seem perfectly appropriate and assertive in one culture can be considered offensive and condescending in another. So simply translating your holding statement might prove to be a mistake.”

Culturally conscious content

Regionalising your content in a way that is culturally felicitous, can really make the difference.  For example, as covered in the report, during the infamous BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill crisis, the former chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, following a meeting with US President Barack Obama, said “We care about the small people”, using what he believed to be the correct translation of his native Swedish phrase, ‘den lilla människan’. The correct translation of that particular phrase is ‘the common person’, but Hemus believed that whilst it may just be a figure of speech in Swedish, it came across highly patronising in English.

30.7% of respondents to the Conversis survey also said that a lack of language skills among their team had resulted in the wrong message being sent with 20% saying the same thing had happened due to a lack of cultural skills. Just over a quarter (25.9%) said a lack of language skills had also resulted in them not being able to respond to an issue in a timely manner, with 22% blaming a lack of cultural skills within the team. 13.2% (rising to 19.8% in the US) even admitted to the language skill shortage leading to a deterioration in their relationship with their end client with 12.9% of those based in the US saying this last issue had happened because of the lack of cultural skills compared to just 2.9% of those in the UK.

Betting everything on a well-established brand reputation in the time of crisis and playing the ostrich can turn out to be disastrous. It takes years to build a positive corporate reputation and only days to bring it down. A mishandled crisis can have serious repercussions, most of which are irreversible.

A corporate reaction in the time of crisis needs to be proactive, consistent and tactical. Rather than responding to media stories and entering a never ending public debate – enquires need to be addressed but in moderation – taking initiative over the narrative of the story and finding innovative story angles to best portray a positive and empathetic corporate message can change the faith of your reputation.

How quickly do you provide a first response holding statement in local languages?

Image: Conversis

Planning for crisis

In the tumultuous of a crisis situation where everything is a series of probabilities and talking chances, a paramount pillar is your crisis communications plan which can be a real life-saver. A tactful plan pre-orchestrated and rehearsed will serve as a pivotal guide in the ‘war room’. Having that first statement ready for release, with well-structured scenarios, a relevant media list and a coordinated team ready to march will save precious time. If the crisis did not surge in your local market, then linguistic resources such as translators, interpreters or language service providers are key in successfully sending the right message across your target audience.

A localised first statement should be immediately available as a part of your ‘emergency kit’, and it should take account not only of the primary language according to the geographic location of the crisis site but also the primary language of the stakeholders – which don’t always coincide due to language migration.

US executives are slightly more confident that they can respond in a timely manner across all markets in the right language with 48.5% of them strongly agreeing with that statement compared to 40% of those from the UK, even though those based in the US appeared to have far more translation to cope with – more than twice the number of US communications execs (53.5%) have to translate their campaigns into 11-20 languages compared to those in the UK (25%).

Francis Ingham, ICCO, chief executive and director general, UK and MENA at PRCA, who wrote the foreword to the report said that “the findings are a wakeup call to the industry on both sides of the Atlantic” adding that “too many people who think that, because English is our first language we have it covered and so there isn’t a need for planning, resources or trying to get inside the mind set of culture and the language of the people we are doing business with, sometimes leads to us being a little bit arrogant.” 

Main Image: Flickr/Tim Hipps

Elena Arau

Elena Arau is a senior communications executive at Conversis, a translation and localisation agency. Her work portfolio includes technology, cybersecurity and luxury accounts across the EMEA region. She formerly held executive communications roles at Dubai-based agencies Active and Matrix.