During the last few decades, our society has increasingly turned into a multicultural and heterogeneous society.
Increased migration, mobility and digitalisation have challenged traditional communication formulas such as “one message sent to all via one channel”. At the same time, the gatekeeping function of traditional journalism has been supplemented, and perhaps replaced by, a social media system where anyone anywhere may communicate to a wide audience.
We now live in a society that is full of communicative paradoxes. On the one hand technological and economical advancements have made the world more global: using crisis as an example, disasters all over the world may be followed by a global audience as they occur. On the other hand, the same advancements have led to a multi-channel system where individuals choose specialised platforms and communicate mainly with people that share their cultural values. We live in a culturally diverse society that demands new communication strategies and tactics.
Culture is a debated concept
In strategic communication and public relations research, culture has mainly been interpreted as “national culture”. But culture is a much wider concept, focusing on different social systems of lifestyles, norms, values and ways of understanding the world. Basically, traditional societies are defined by a common cultural understanding while modern societies are defined by increasing cultural diversity.
The clash between traditional and fundamentalist, culturalists and modern cosmopolitans, is not new but has increased in intensity during recent decades, both inside nations and between nations and different groups. Krishnamurthy Sriramesh has observed that “Sadly, culture has yet to be integrated into the public relations body of knowledge. It appears that culture’s time has not yet come after all for our field”.
Even though communications have undergone radical changes for years, crisis communication scholars have only recently started to pay attention to the consequences. Crisis communication has traditionally been based on a mass communication paradigm dominated by sender-oriented perspectives, rational message distribution and response strategies.
Here, we want to focus on structural changes to crisis communication in relation to increased cultural diversity. But our main goal is not just to describe what is happening, but to put forward ideas of how to manage the new communicative situation.
The law of requisite variety
Ever since publishing his book The Social Psychology of Organising in 1969, the organisation scholar Karl E. Weick has been a pioneer in the area of social constructionism. His Theory of Organising states that an organisation is continually produced and reproduced through communication between the organisation’s members. Furthermore, the theory states that members’ “sensemaking” processes enact the surrounding environment - in other words, the environment is a socially-produced reality because it is a product of the members’ interpretation of available information.
As a consequence, an organisation will not react to changes in the environment in a totally rational, causal and predictable way. Organisational members will not only try to make sense and react to information in the environment, but also actively enact the social reality of the organisation and act on the basis of this produced social reality.
A social-constructionist perspective on crisis emphasises communication and the social construction of reality. This means that a crisis does not simply arise by itself; the members make sense of changes in or outside the organisation and slowly enact the crisis. An important concept in the field of crisis communication is variety requisite. In 1956 William Ross Ashby formulated the “law of requisite variety” which states that only variety can master variety, reducing disturbance and promoting harmonious order. In other words, the law suggests that a flexible system, with many options, has better possibilities to cope with changes.
Five strategies of multicultural crisis communication
As described earlier, contemporary society is diversified and increasingly multicultural. As a consequence, organisations that want to be successful must leave behind the old models of crisis communication and adapt to the changing, multicultural reality. We have developed five strategies for optimal crisis communication in a culturally diverse society.
- A complex organisation strategy. Unfortunately, there are no simple quick-fix solutions such as the ones offered by pop management literature. A complex, multicultural reality can only be met with complexity. A problem in many organisations is that the management group is too homogenous. Members of management groups have typically similar backgrounds, educations, interests and experiences, which is a disadvantage when it comes to detecting and understanding an upcoming crisis. This is because members have a fairly integrated and unified interpretation frame, and situations, issues and weak signals of change that fall outside this frame may not be understood as an impending crisis. Also, a homogenous management group might have problems communicating with a heterogeneous environment. One solution is to use the expertise of co-workers. Research in a major hospital in Sweden has found that organisational members are fundamentally important for the early detection of weak signals of change. Co-workers in general are more heterogeneous than members of the management group and they may have a better cultural competence, which facilitate communication with stakeholders from different cultures. Hence, co-workers are important resources that organisations should use wisely to adapt and act in a culturally diverse society. Cooperation is essential if an organisation is to ‘see’ more and adapt to a complex and ever-changing society.
- Developing relational communication strategies is another way of enabling the early detection of upcoming crisis and to rebuild trust with important stakeholders. Traditionally, crisis management has been restricted to crash-management and to the actual crisis phase, while modern crisis management embraces the pre- and post-crisis phases as a whole. We believe that organisations must pay much more attention to the pre-crisis phase, because there are often weak signals before a situation develops into a crisis. Further, it is vital to develop good relations with stakeholders before a crisis and initiate different forms of communities. A first step is to identify with relevant actors such as associations and political or religious groups.There are several good examples of how emergency management agencies have started to build trust and establish strong networks pre-crisis. In the corporate arena the food corporation Findus Nordic in Sweden managed the horse meat scandal in 2013 post-crisis in a very pro-active way and managed to recover good relations with customers through a transparent and inviting communication strategy.
- Use micro-media strategies. Our research shows that organisations should primarily focus on interpersonal networks and secondly on free newspapers, web sites, social media and mobile telephone networks. However, media strategy is always dependent on context. In some cases, it can be wise to identify local minority media, such as local television, social media groups and radio stations. But we have found that local minority media may have problems of trust among stakeholders, since many of these media are associated with political or religious groups. Interviewees have told us that many micro media are perceived as too extreme and that they angle the messages in a way that favours the organisation behind these media.
- Develop opinion leader strategies. This solution is hardly new and has been recommended by mass communication scholars since the 1940s. Nevertheless, it is still true that informal leaders are important for people and for their interpretations of reality. Informal leaders have slightly higher levels of education and status, consume more media and have larger networks. These informal leaders might have a different background, but they can also be staff in schools, housing companies or the social services.
- Practice and improvisations strategies. It is important to interact with people with culturally diverse backgrounds as participants and target groups during exercises. It is a very common problem in many organisations that a lot of energy is put into developing detailed crisis plans but implementation and yearly staff training is ignored. Even if it is understandable for time and resource reasons, we still believe that it is a dangerous road to go down. If organisations are to improve their multicultural crisis communication competence, staff training must be regularly carried out. It is through these trainings that organisational members gain an improved understanding of their need to improve and be confident in their own expertise.
Increased cultural diversity challenges traditional communication strategies rooted in mass communication and functionalist organisational theories. The strategies we suggest are expressions of a different mindset, where strategic communication is founded in a holistic and relational approach, adapting to societal change.