Companies and organizations ask for trouble when they fail to recognize the obstacles that can occur in communications between different cultures and geographies.
What is transparency in one culture may be completely foreign in another. The kind of language and quality of explanation that works in one part of the country may fall flat in the ears of consumers who live somewhere else.
The most fundamental obstacle is not knowing the local turf. Our colleague Ruud Bijl, who provides crisis counsel to clients from his home base in Amsterdam, wrote, "When a crisis occurs, corporate guidelines and cultural differences often cause an international company headaches.”
In his blog, Bijl cited the example of a Chinese toy company that was baffled by a West European company representative who recommended issuing an apology and recalling a defective video game. Toy company officials refused to do either and instructed their representative to respond only to complaints, even if that risked a long-term dent in the brand’s reputation.
Encountering these kinds of obstacles doesn't require crossing international boundaries. They can occur anywhere. Cultural barriers can exist in the same city.
For example, a company with social service operations across America and a headquarters in the Midwest may feel like a fish out of water trying to communicate to stakeholders in a place like Oregon. The politics and sensitivities around the social services could be very different. And the company PR team may not have any existing relationships with key reporters or local influencers. Their attempt to deliver a complex message may be thwarted by not getting a reporter of a key publication to call them back on the phone.
Crisis response and media relations, like politics, is all local. You need to know the lay of the land and who to call. You should understand the local context for a problem or issue. Experience dealing with crises or touchy issues is valuable, but so is the good sense to seek some local assistance.
Bijl advises that crisis communications plans take into account cultural differences and geographical distances so a crisis response team isn’t bogged down trying to identify and cope with those obstacles. The same counsel applies to a media relations or marketing program. Know your audience, understand how it gets trusted information and build rapport with those influencers before you roll out a campaign or respond to a crisis.
For large, complex and multi-location organizations, that may not be possible without competent local assistance. The cost of hiring and following the advice of a savvy local PR team is well worth it if you can avoid running into a communication brick wall.