Crisis Communication Theories Adopted By Multinational Organisations
The crisis controversy had become a highly debated field especially in the last few years when the importance of the crisis communication is reflected in the way the multinational organisations are handling their crises, ignoring some essential variables that could impact the strategy formulation and the whole crisis communication process. Part of the interest in this area also comes from the dramatic and newsworthy characteristics of this phenomenon and the necessity to identify new insights that could be applied by organisations under pressure. (Heath, 2010)
The main issue which affects the public relations practice is the fact that most of the literature in this field mainly focus its attention on the ability of organisations to meet their key stakeholders expectations during crisis situations, what and how they should communicate (Heath, 2010), but with a drawback regarding the fact that it questions the generalizability to other crises as it only regards a single organisation, with specific issues, overlooking important variables and affecting the quality of research and the development of best practices in this area of public relations.
The scholars of the discipline also discuss efficient crisis responses strategies (Coombs, 2007), and principles in crisis management (Langford, 2009). As presented by Burnett (1998) the management literature on crisis communication has an essential contribution in assessing the seriousness of crises, but particularly addresses to public relations managers and their role in managing the situations. The author also admits that most of the literature presents guidelines and advices for dealing with media during these situations, but however, the question is if the prescriptions proposed by this body of literature could be applied to all types of crises.
Other areas of crisis communication had only received a minimal attention and because the parameters of crisis communication are not closely identified, the need for further research in the crisis communication area, which involves cultural implications, is an important step for an additional research. (Coombs, 2010) The author also asks for more social scientific approaches to augment, enrich the practice and build the foundation for clarifying the role of organisations in society.
From a cultural perspective, the situation raises even more challenges given the fact that the weaknesses of crisis communication research are visible in the neglect of the cultural dimension and its analysis, and only little studies have been developed in this area. (Falkheimer, 2008) This was the gap identified by the researcher and the objectives of this research are to fill it and contribute to further developments in the crisis communication and cultural areas of public relations, by determining the way the multinational organisations behave during crisis situation and cope with the uncertainty, from a cultural perspective. The main question in this research is in which way the culture may influence the way multinational organisations manage the crises situations which threaten to affect their image and reputation?
The globalisation process and the development of multicultural publics are considered to be well-known reasons for crises acceleration and as a result, they have been identified as essential factors for this research and had increased the need for organisations to become more cultural aware, and together with this, the necessity to get involved in multicultural communication during crisis situations. These aspects will be studied and regarded as a starting point in order to understand how these factors affect one of the most important fields of PR, the crisis communication. (Falkheimer, 2008)
Curtin and Gaither (2007) contended that one of the issues faced by multinational organisations in the era of globalisation, with potential impact on the crisis communication, is the fact that most of them sacrifice cultural sensitivity, ignoring the cultural signs and communication, for financial gains.
The practice of public relations in the crisis communication field is affected by this little studies in the area; moreover, the profession not only faces this issue, but also the lack of cultural implications and considerations in the crisis communication process, especially at the strategy formulation level which had not been researched enough. As a result, this research takes Sriramesh and Vercic’s (2001) framework as a starting point, which proposes five environmental variables that are aimed to help the public relations practitioners to research in depth the variables which are affecting the international PR practice: the culture, economics, political, level of activism, political and media systems. This study selected to analyze the cultural variable and determine how the communication with the publics during crisis situations is influenced by the culture.
As admitted by the authors, the developments in this body of knowledge will appear only when research goes beyond describing the PR activities and link the practice of a public relations specialism with the environmental variables. Because so far only a few studies attempted to link societal culture (Sriramesh, 1996) and corporate culture (Sriramesh, Grunig, Dozier, 1996) with the PR practice, this research will contribute to further developments and link the cultural dimension and its impact on the crisis communication process.
Because the culture in a public relations context, as it appears in the body of literature, is very much linked with the intercultural national communication, and one of the most relevant studies is Hofstede’s (2001) five cultural dimensions, which quantifies the cultural dimensions of power distance, uncertainty avoidance, individualism, masculinity-feminity, and individualism-collectivism (Falkheimer, 2008), this study aims to examine the uncertainty avoidance dimension in order to research the way the organisations adapt to new changes and cope with the uncertainty encountered during crisis situations.
The need for a further research in this area, which links the cultural variable and its impact on the crisis communication process, is proven to be essential mainly because the recent issues that are affecting the multinational organisations are becoming more heterogeneous, covering different crisis situations and dimensions, and the practice should move beyond the strategies used in crisis responses and allow for new insights and improvements necessary for a better handling of the situation. (An and Cheng, 2010)
Because the crisis communication theory and research have grown over the past years, as a result of the diversity of crisis situations, so did the body of literature available. With more than twenty definitions discussed by Heath and Millar (2004), the term is widely used in the literature. But considering the fact that most of it is dominated by advices and recommendations for crisis managers, in the form of “dos” and “don’ts” lists (Coombs, 2010), the most fundamental definition of this process that was selected for the study because of its relevance to this research is the Seeger, Sellnow, and Ulmer, (1998: 233, cited in Coombs, 2010: 18) definition which describes the phenomenon as “a specific, unexpected and non-routine organisationally based event or series of events which creates high levels of uncertainty and threat or perceived threat to an organisation’s high priority goals”, but which may also “be a radical change for good as well as bad.” (Friedmann, 2002: 5, cited in Coombs, 2010: 18). Despite the negative effects a crisis can arouse, a few authors discuss the positive aspects of the phenomenon and the learning opportunities a crisis could bring to the organisations, such as the development of new and efficient strategies and accelerated changes in an organisation. (Burnett, 1998)
The public relations practice is also seen as a technique for handling issues and its main functional role is highly visible during crisis situations (Falkheimer, 2008), but as Falkheimer and Heide (2006) affirm, this field still lacks theoretical framework analysis and the cultural approaches to crisis communication are only a few and undeveloped. The authors (2006: 182) also explain that most of the crises result from poor communication between organisations and their publics and often the communication issues tend to be intensified in a cultural context, but because the cultural issues in the crisis communication research are overlooked, “there is an increasing need for communication and management knowledge among practitioners working in a heterogeneous environment.” As it is presented by George (2003), understanding the cultural uniqueness of a country is essential, especially during crisis situations because it helps practitioners to identify the most adequate strategies and messages, channels of communication and spokesperson to address the issues.
A number of authors, such as Falkheimer and Heide (2006), Sriramesh and Vercic (2001) are calling for more research and studies involving the cultural perspectives in managing public relations and one of the core specialism of the profession, the crisis communication. Because the most important aspect in a crisis is the way an organisation communicates about the situation and the strategies adopted during this phenomenon (Langford, 2009), the cultural dimension could have an important influence at this level. As a result, the challenges created by crises still have not been clearly and fully identified. (Burnett, 1998)
As contended by Sriramesh and Vercic (2001), only in the last decade the public relations scholars have studied the impact of culture on certain organisational processes, but without involving the crisis communication aspects in their research. As a consequence, the authors are asking for studies regarding the way the culture affects the choice of PR strategies and tactics adopted by multinational organisations. Before this study can be developed is important to consider the definition of the “culture” and its dimensions in relation with the public relations and crisis communication practice.
The concept of “culture” in public relations is mainly viewed as the practices of a society, which plays a fundamental role in international public relations and is defined as “the process by which meaning is produced, circulated, consumed, commodified, and endlessly reproduced and renegotiated in society.” (Curtin and Gaither, 2007:35) Banks (1995: 31) affirms that public relations “is itself a cultural activity”, which takes place within a cultural context because of the large audiences and stakeholders targeted in numerous societal segments, and as a result, the understanding of the culture appears to be more than essential in the planning and management process.
Hofstede’s (2001) dimensions of societal culture provide valuable information for this research, by explaining how the culture is manifested in the society, especially the uncertainty avoidance dimension, because it appears to have the main influence in the way organisations cope with an unexpected phenomenon, such as crisis communication. Because “every culture has its ways of regulating and enforcing behaviours” (Sriramesh and Vercic, 2001:106), it also implies that each organisation has its own way of dealing with crises, considering the cultural context within it operates. The uncertainty avoidance is seen as “the extent to which members of a culture can tolerate and cope with ambiguity.”(Sriramesh and Vercic, 2001:109)
Essential for the understanding of the culture are also the factors that cause the culture in a society and how the society adopts a certain culture. Kaplan and Manners (1972, cited in Sriramesh and Vercic, 2001) identified four determinants of societal culture: the technoeconomics, social structure, ideology and personality. This aspect is important to be considered, because as Sriramesh and Vercic (2001) affirm, an effective way of linking the culture with the public relations practices is by identifying the influence of the societal culture on the organisational culture.
Little research in public relations has examined the connection between different cultural aspects and crisis communication. Banks (1995) uses culture as a central element in his social-interpretative approach, and its influence on the internal communication, community relations, communication with activist audiences, and international programs, but without specifically including the crisis communications aspect. His research can be valuable as it demonstrates that the cultural context is an inherent aspect in communication and how relevant the cultural dimension can be to the decision making and strategy formulation process (Moss, Vercic, and Warnaby, 2000), and this is even more fundamental for the linkage between the impact of culture on the crisis communication strategies adopted by organisations operating in the multinational arena. Another study which contributed to the development of the research in this area is the ethnographic study of Falkheimer (2008) who had also incorporated cultural aspects in his research and focused on the communication with different cultural publics in Sweden during crisis situations, but from a governmental perspective.
As a result, this literature review underlined that the culture is a fundamental consideration in communication, especially in the crisis communication field, by shaping world-views and ways of thinking (Curtin and Gaither, 2007), and also highlighted the need for further development and research in the crisis communication process, which could incorporate and consider the cultural dimension and its impact on the strategy formulation. Although it had been shown that numerous definitions and authors have approached different aspects involved in the crisis process, this gap presented here and identified by several authors still need to be filled in, and the objectives of this research is to do this, by answering the research question and determine how the culture influence the way multinational organisations communicate with their publics during crisis situations.
For the topic under investigation, the researcher proposes to use a qualitative approach in order to develop a comprehensive analysis regarding the nexus between the strategies adopted during crisis situations and the influence of the cultural variable. This approach seemed to be the most suitable because it will try to understand the practice of public relations during crisis situations from the practitioners’ point of view who experienced and dealt with the issues discussed in this research. What is even more essential is the fact that the researcher closely engages in the topic investigated and with the participants being interviewed. (Daymon and Holloway, 2002)
The study will be conducted in the UK and this qualitative research will use the interviews as a method of data collection and investigation of participants’ perspectives, experiences and perceptions. The type of interview selected is the in-depth, semi-structured interview because allows the researcher to investigate the issues and topic of interest in a flexible, two-way communication, informal way, and the questions can be different for each participants, depending on their experience, the process of each interview and the participants’ responses. (Daymon and Holloway, 2002) The research will only include participants with experience of the subject being researched, public relations professionals who work for multinational organisations and have been involved in crisis communication issues. A maximum of ten interviews will be taken, using open ended questions because it encourages participants to provide extra information, facts or attitudes. (Saunders, Lewis, and Thornhill, 2007)
The questions will be mainly focused on the nature of the crisis the organisation was involved in, the role and duties of the practitioners directly implicated in the issue, how the communication messages and strategies were adopted, if the organisation had a plan prepared in advance for this certain type of crisis, and what challenges and opportunities the crisis had raised for the organisation. The core aspect of the interview will contain questions about all the cultural implications involved in the crisis, the cultural context in which their organisation operates, if and how are they prepared to cope with the uncertainty and ambiguity of other cultures where their organisation operates, how the messages and strategies are tailored to meet the diverse cultural perspective of the audiences during crisis situations, and questions about the perceived and considered effects and influence of the culture on the way the crisis communications strategies were adopted.
The organisations and public relations practitioners will be identified and chosen using the Internet, the CIPR website (the PR Directory section), CIPR regional and sectoral PR groups, and specialist websites and magazines, such as PR Week UK and PR Business.
The interviews will be tape-recorded because it is considered to be the best way of preserving the participants’ words appropriately and capture the exact words; the permission for doing this will be asked before setting up the interview. (Daymon and Holloway, 2002)
Because this research will adopt a qualitative approach, the data collected from interviews will be transcribed, in order to obtain the richest data and facilitate the comparison process between the evidences obtained. The data will also be reduced into manageable information by coding and summarizing it into simplified patterns, and only the relevant information for this study will be included in the research. All the information gained during interviews will be linked to the theoretical concepts and frameworks presented in the literature review, in order to manage to explain the findings. (Daymon and Holloway, 2002)
The limitations of the research identified at this stage consists of gaining access to organisations and practitioners who were involved in crisis communications, and their practices were affected by the cultural dimension, together with their willingness to talk about the issues; also the limited number of interviews planned at this stage (because of the potential limited access to more organisations and professionals to interview) might not be as representative as desired, but it will contribute to future research in the area of crisis communication.
This research will consider all the ethical implications involved in this study. The participants’ permission regarding the audio-taping, their names and the organisations names will be asked. The confidentiality aspect will be included in this study, if desired by participants. The issue that the researcher foresees at this point is the access to the necessary data which may be hard to get because of the information the organisations are not willing to reveal as a result of the nature of the crisis they were involved in.