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Failings in international crisis comms

22nd May 2016


We look at recent research that highlights how comms professionals can let themselves, and their companies, down through using the wrong language when managing an international crisis.

When people in the UK of a certain age hear the phrase, ‘Crisis? What crisis?’, it’s possible they either think of the Winter of Discontent and Labour’s subsequent defeat to Margaret Thatcher in 1979, or Supertramp’s 1975 album – (I’m the latter). But arguably, that particular phrase is taking on a different meaning in today’s society. It appears that PR 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, which begs the question: how can they be aware if anyone is saying a bad word about them?

This is one of the surprising findings in a recent report ‘The importance of understanding language and culture when managing an international crisis’ by translation and localisation agency Conversis. Despite the survey being completed by senior communications professionals who had responsibility for international crisis communications, 15% of UK respondents said they only monitor the news and/or social media in English, which makes one wonder whether they would know if a crisis was happening in a particular territory even if it was trending on their social media monitoring tool of choice.

Francis Ingham, ICCO, chief executive and director general, UK & MENA PRCA, says in the report introduction that the findings are a wake-up call to the industry on both sides of the Atlantic. In a podcast he adds: “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 the culture and language of the people we are doing business with. This sometimes leads to us being a little bit arrogant.” Ingham believes that we don’t invest enough time, effort and money in communicating in other languages and embracing other cultures and that is a risk to the continued growth of the PR industry in the UK and US.

Another worrying statistic is that half of the senior PR professionals surveyed for the report admitted to having experienced a cultural faux pas due to a mistreated or wrong cultural reference in a campaign and in over 68% of those cases it led to severe ramifications. Gary Muddyman, CEO, Conversis, says that when dealing with crisis communications, empathy is key, but empathy can’t simply be translated – it has to be regionalised and put into cultural context. He adds: “What is assertive in one language, can be perceived as condescending in another.”

The aim of PR during a crisis situation should be to manage brand reputation and all stakeholder expectations, be that clients/customers, employees, shareholders, or the wider public, through a sympathetic and humanised tone of voice, but one word used in the wrong context or not correctly adapted in a certain language could damage that reputation critically and sometimes irreversibly.

Further information

The importance of understanding language and culture when managing an international crisis’ report is available to download from the Conversis website. You can listen to Francis Ingham and Gary Muddyman discuss the report in more detail with Neil Chapman, Partner, WPNT Communications and former Editor of numerous BBC TV & Radio News programmes, Simon Waldman, on the csuitepodcast.

Written by Russell Goldsmith, director at Conversis



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