Show 20 – Understanding Language & Culture in an International Crisis

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We discuss a report by translation and localisation agency, Conversis, on the importance of understanding language and culture when managing an international crisis.

Russell Goldsmith was joined in the studio by Conversis CEO (at the time of recording), Gary Muddyman and Francis Ingham, Director General UK & MENA PRCA and Chief Executive of ICCO, and on the line, but Neil Chapman, partner at WPNT Communications, an agency that specialises in Crisis Communications Leadership.  Plus, the show also featured clips from an interview Russell carried out the previous week with former Editor of numerous BBC TV and Radio news programmes, Simon Waldman.

Almost half of the UK and US Communications executives who manage international crisis communications and had responded to the research survey admitted to having experienced a cultural faux pas due to a mistreated or wrong cultural reference in a campaign.  In over 68% of those cases, it had led to severe ramifications.

Gary felt that this all linked to the general lack of language and cultural awareness amongst executives in the US and UK.  He believes that one of the best ways to understand the culture of a country is to really understand their language and that whole attitude affects us, whereas a number of our competitor countries are real global citizens who understand the language, culture and what they are dealing with – we just don’t have that kind of education.

Within the report Francis said ‘the findings are a wakeup call to the industry on both sides of the Atlantic’.  He added 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, this sometimes leads to us being a little bit arrogant.  His conclusion from having read the report is that we simply 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.

Neil then talked about his time at BP, where he was involved in the crisis communications during BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico back in April 2010.  This was flagged in the report. People quite rightly took offence to the comments made by the CEO at the time, Tony Hayward, when he used the phrase “I’d like my life back” at the end of a TV news interview, this after 11 workers lost their lives in the disaster, there was more reputational issues to deal with when the then BP Chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, followed that comment up with a cultural faux pas.

In another interview, Svanberg tried to translate a phrase from his native Swedish that was a figure of speech that means something along the lines of ‘the common person’, but ended up saying “We care about the small people”, which just came across highly patronising in English.

Neil said, in relation to that issue, that what he teaches executives is that it’s all about empathy, and that language plays into that.  You need to show you are human and that you realise they are hurting and it’s all about how you demonstrate that empathy.  He admitted that those two executives at BP didn’t do a good job in that respect and it was because they did it in a crass way.

Neil’s advice to anyone in a crisis situation is to ‘get some dirt on your hands’. In other words, if you can, speak to the people who have been impacted in a crisis, listen to them, really meet them and go eye to eye and see the impact of what has happened – then the tone of what you say will change and will become much more human and empathetic.

Other areas covered that are featured in the report included monitoring of comments on social media and speed of response to both media and comments across social, in the right languages.

Another topic we covered was that of Language Migration, and it’s relevance in Crisis Communications.  Neil explained the importance of knowing information about the community around where you are based.  He used an example that he was involved in and how, after an explosion at a refinery, they discovered that, when meeting members of the community, over a period of about five years, it had gone from a dominant English speaking to a dominant Spanish speaking, but they only found this out at the time of the crisis.

Thanks to markettiers for hosting us and recording the show.

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