Keys to a successful global crisis communications response

Communicators should bear in mind key cultural differences and adapt their crisis messages accordingly to engage a worldwide workforce. And speakers, watch your speed and diction.

The need for speed is ever present in the midst of a crisis. But when executing crisis communications plans globally, a blanket approach and rushed messaging can do more harm than good.

“The assumption that everyone globally will understand and react to the crisis message the same way results in messages that are overly broad and not specific enough in direction and information for many cultures,” says Dean Foster, founder of DFA Intercultural Global Solutions. “They’re addressed to (and by) the wrong people, [and] are not written or presented in ways that ensure accurate comprehension.”

Understand that your message could get interpreted quite differently depending on the culture.

The keys to success of any crisis response? Speed (within reason), accuracy and authenticity.

Achieving those elements when communicating with a global workforce requires you to consider the following, Foster says:

Make sure the message is going to the right people.

In hierarchically oriented cultures (e.g., India, parts of Latin America and Latin and Eastern Europe), individuals tend to leave decision-making to those in positions of authority and will wait to be directed. In more “egalitarian” cultures, such as Scandinavia, Western Europe and North America, employees can feel more entitled to respond and participate without waiting for direction from superiors.

If the crisis message demands recipients’ response, consider that workers in some cultures will first require detailed instruction from their perceived supervisors, whereas those in other cultures will engage in delivering—and might even question or resist—the response required. In global communications, strive to provide greater detail, information, data and rationale, and be sure to indicate that managers are responsible for ensuring that employees act on the information provided.

Manage the language and potential cultural interpretation of your message.

Even if English is the organization’s official or principal language for global communications, don’t assume that all recipients will understand the meaning of your message. Most English speakers abroad have learned English as a second, third or fourth language, and have learned to read and write English much better than to speak and hear it.

Although video messaging is powerful and can establish the all-important human connection necessary for authenticity and engagement, differences in English competency require that recipients have the opportunity to read and reread the content of the message, especially if further action is required. Have the content, whenever possible, translated into a written document in their first language(s). If it’s available only in English, make sure the printed version is distributed immediately after the video, with ample notification that a text version will be made available.

Speakers in video messages should avoid body language or gestures that could be misinterpreted or cause confusion. For example, the thumb-to-forefinger “OK” sign is definitely not OK in many countries outside the U.S.  Avoid using too much—or not enough—facial expression. Also, be mindful of your speed and diction; speak slowly and clearly, using easily identifiable phrases, and pause after each key point to let listeners’ minds process what’s been said.

When using English—whether spoken in video messaging or written—the sender must be skilled in using “global English,” that is, English free of local variations (such as jargon or idioms), which might not be understood by all. For example, U.S.-American speakers/writers must avoid:

  • Sports terms such as, “I’ll touch base with you in the morning,” or, “Step up to the plate.”
  • Abbreviations, initialisms, slang and idioms. (They will generally not be understood.)
  • Use of double negatives. (They are confusing. Always choose the clearest wording for expressing your thoughts.)

Finally, many cultures interpret time differently. If your message requires particular responses, clearly specify deadlines and expected schedules, as well as the reasons for these time frames, and instructions on how to meet these requirements.

In the absence of that specific information, people in other cultures might respond to time frames, deadlines and schedules differently—or not at all.

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