Table of contents
2 Organizational crisis communication
3 Culture as an influencing factor on crisis communication
4 Crisis communication in individualistic and collectivistic cultures
4.1 Organizational crisis communication messages and strategies
4.2 Stakeholder perception of corporate crises and crisis communication
5 Discussion and outlook
Appendix A: Tabular overview of definitions of the term crisis in chronological order
Volkswagen emissions scandal, Germanwings Flight 9525, Samsung’s exploding batteries – corporate crises are becoming more and more common in today’s unpredictable environment. In the course of globalization an increasing number of multinational organizations is operating in an international setting. Thus, the likelihood and potential impact of a corporate crisis rises. At the same time, the international potential of a crisis is aggravated by the dissemination of information in near real-time due to the Internet (Coombs & Holladay, 2010, p. 423). Especially negative information spreads with a range and speed that increases an organization’s vulnerability to crises (Fiederer & Ternès, 2017, p. 4). As a result the demand and importance of crisis communication is leaping. Due to the more complex and international surroundings of crisis communication, culture as a contextual factor in crisis communication plays a role of growing importance (Verčič, 2009, p. 487). In different cultures, different crisis responses by the organizations are expected (Diers-Lawson & Croucher, 2017, p. 358) because stakeholders perceive and react to messages in different ways dependent upon their culture (Kaul & Desai, 2017, p. 268; Jiang, Huang, Wu, Choy & Lin, 2015). The probably most typical distinction of cultures is between East and West, between collectivistic and individualistic societies (Huang & Lyu, 2017, p. 102; Claeys & Schwarz, 2010, pp. 230-231). In the past, crisis communication research has been given too little attention to cultural contexts (Dhanesh & Sriramesh, in press, p. 2; Zhao, 2017, p. 1; Thießen, 2011, p. 13). Crisis communication research and theories almost exclusively focused on individualistic Western contexts, but neglected other cultural settings (Dhanesh & Sriramesh, in press, p. 1; Huang, Wu & Cheng, 2016, p. 201). However, the growing relevance of culture in crisis communication is getting more and more evident in research.
For this reason, the question of the cultural influences of individualistic and collectivistic societies on organization’s crisis communication strategies as well as the stakeholders’ perception of and responses to the crisis messages in different cultural settings is discussed in the present work. To answer this question, first of all an overview of the theory of crisis communication is given, with reference to the definition and the main crisis communication theories and strategies. Secondly, the term culture is paid attention to, with a focus on the dimension of individualistic versus collectivistic cultures as an influencing factor on crisis communication. Subsequently, the current findings of the influence of individualism and collectivism on organizations’ crisis communication strategies and on the perception of stakeholders are reflected. Concluding, the results are discussed in the overall setting, limitations are shown and implications for future research are given.
2 Organizational crisis communication
The word crisis is derived from the Greek word ‘krísi’, meaning a break in a hitherto continuous development. Over the years many definitions of the term crisis have surfaced (cf. appendix A). However, the term is too complex to be rigidly defined (Lagadec, 1993, p. 35). According to Ulmer, Sellnow and Seeger (2011) an organizational crisis is as “a specific, unexpected, and nonroutine event or series of events that create high level of uncertainty and simultaneously present an organization both opportunities for and threats to its high-priority goals” (p. 7). Coombs (2007) disagrees with the statement of a crisis being unexpected. He believes it is just unpredictable and defines crisis as “the perception of an unpredictable event that threatens important expectancies of stakeholders and can seriously impact an organization’s performance and generate negative outcomes” (pp. 2-3). Most crisis definitions agree that a crisis has the potential to harm stakeholders, damage the organizations’ relationship with them and therefore damage its reputation (cf. appendix A). Due to the potentially high risk of organizational crises, crisis communication has become
essential to organizations (Mast, 2016, p. 403; Kepplinger, 2015, p. 995) and one of the most important fields of internal and external corporate communications (Schwarz & Löffelholz, 2014, p. 1303).
Crisis communication is the core of crisis management (Coombs, 2010, p. 25), which seeks to protect stakeholders from harm as well as protect reputational and financial assets (Coombs, 2007, p. 5). Crisis communication thereby refers to the process of communicating actively with stakeholders, e.g. employees, business partners, the public, media and politics, to alleviate the impact on affected parties and to minimize the reputational damage (Dhanesh & Sriramesh, in press, p. 2). Another task of the communication professionals lies in influencing the course of the crisis in order to restore or even improve the previous status (Thießen, 2011, p. 85).
One of the two dominant theories in crisis communication, Benoit’s (1997) Image Restoration Theory , assumes that communication is a goal-oriented activity and that the key goal is to sustain a favorable reputation (Frandsen & Johansen, 2010a,
p. 547). The theory focuses on organizational crisis messages and outlines five different image repair strategies to respond to threats in form of crises: denial of charges, evasion of responsibility, reducing offensiveness of the act attributed to the accused, taking corrective action and mortification. Latter stands for admitting responsibility and asking for forgiveness (Benoit, 1997, pp. 178-179). The second major theory, Situational Crisis Communication Theory by Coombs (2007), is based on Attribution Theory1. It suggests that a crisis communication strategy should be selected by the type of crisis. Three crisis types can be distinguished that are defined by the level of an organization’s attribution of crisis responsibility: victim, accident and intentional (Coombs, 2007, pp. 141-142). Over time Coombs added, additionally to crisis type, crisis history and prior reputation as intensifying factors of attribution of crisis responsibility (Coombs, 2010, p. 39). Depending on these factors there are several response strategies: denying (attacking the accuser, denial of responsibility, scapegoating), diminishing (excusing, justification, reducing perceived seriousness of the crisis), rebuilding (compensation, apology) and reinforcing (ingratiation, bolstering, victimage) (Coombs, 2010, pp. 40-41; Coombs, 2007, p. 140). It gets apparent that the response strategies of Benoit (1997) and Coombs (2010, 2007) are very similar and are partially congruent. Another framework of crisis communication strategy is victim focus, which refers to the fact that crises have the potential to harm stakeholders. If that is the case, the crisis response must be victim-centered in order to limit reputational damage (Coombs, 2014, p. 4).
All the above-mentioned strategies can be described as reactive strategies since the organizations are asked to provide explanation and reaction (Frandsen & Johansen, 2010a, p. 545). A contradictory concept is the proactive communication strategy of stealing thunder (Lee, 2016; Coombs, 2014). An organization steals thunder, when it proactively self-discloses its own crisis and thereby admitting weakness before this weakness is announced by the media or other stakeholders (Coombs, 2014, p. 3; Wigley, 2011, p. 51; Arpan & Roskos-Ewoldson, 2005, pp. 426-427). This reduces the possibility of the media sensationalizing the crisis (Lee, 2016, p. 336) and leads to perceptions of higher credibility and honesty for an organization (Arpan & Roskos-Ewoldson, 2005, pp. 426-427). Organizations are able to frame the issue in a positive way and control the flow of the information (Zhou & Shin, 2017, p. 1037). The goal is to suffer less damage (Coombs, 2014, p. 3).
As mentioned before, the crisis type determines how stakeholders perceive the reputation of an organization, to what degree they attribute responsibility for the crisis and how they response to the crisis affectively and behaviorally (Coombs, 2010, p. 38). This influences how organizations chose crisis communication strategies (Cornelissen, 2011, p. 203). However, stakeholders’ reactions and perceptions are not only affected by their own perceived attributions of responsibility but also by organizations’ responses to crises (Jiang et al., 2015, pp. 59-60). Thus, crisis communication is an interactive process between organizations’ response strategies and stakeholders’ perceptions. As crises become increasingly international, the role of culture as an influencing variable on crisis communication and response becomes more and more relevant (Diers-Lawson & Croucher, 2017, p. 358; Coombs & Holladay, 2010, p. 423). Therefore the term culture as a contributing factor will be discussed in the following chapter.
3 Culture as an influencing factor on crisis communication
In order to examine the influence of culture on crisis communication, it is first of all important to take a closer look at the term culture itself. Culture is a very broad concept with countless definitions from different perspectives, e.g. historical, normative, psychological or genetic perspectives (cf. Kroeber & Kluckhohn, 1952). So as to understand the nature of societal cultures, this paper refers primarily to Hofstede’s (2001, 1991) cultural dimensions theory as theoretical framework. His work has been the most popular in organizational literature with its focus on the national context of culture, classifying culture into dimensions to understand the differences in societies (Dhanesh & Sriramesh, in press). Moreover Hofstede’s model has been considered to be useful for better understanding the dynamics of organizational crisis situations in international contexts (cf. Huang & Lyu, 2017; Wardoyo & Pang, 2017; Taylor, 2000). This was also confirmed by Coombs (2008): “Maureen Taylor (2000) is right in arguing for the need to apply intercultural concepts such as those of
Hofstede to crisis communication” (p. 1058). Therefore the cultural dimensions can be considered as a good framework regarding the influence of culture in crisis communication.
Hofstede (1991) defines culture as "the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another" (p. 5). In his work he distinguishes between the following dimensions: power distance, uncertainty avoidance, individualism versus collectivism, masculinity versus femininity, long-term versus short-term orientation and indulgence versus restraint (2011, p. 8; 2001, p. 29). Of the six dimensions individualism versus collectivism is one of the most commonly used frameworks to differentiate between cultures, also in crisis communication research (Xu, 2018, p. 3; Zhu, Anagondahalli & Zhang, 2017, p. 488; Claeys & Schwarz, 2010, pp. 230-231; Falkheimer & Heide, 2006, p. 183). It is especially used to compare Western and Non-Western communication modes (Huang & Lyu, 2017, p. 102). Since most crisis communication theories refer to Western contexts, implications for Non-Western contexts are missing (Dhanesh & Sriramesh, in press). Thus the distinction between Western and Non-Western contexts is a good first step in reflecting the influence of culture in crisis communication. For this reason the framework on culture in this paper will be further narrowed down to individualism and collectivism as opposite poles of one dimension.
Individualism and collectivism are existent in all cultures, with one pole of the dimension usually being predominant (Gundykunst, 1998, p. 108). Individualism on the one hand “stands for a society in which the ties between individuals are loose: Everyone is expected to look after him/herself and her/his immediate family only” (Hofstede, 2001, p. 225) and is supposed to be independent (Haruta & Hallahan, 2003, p. 6). Individualistic cultures tend to use low-context communication with information being explicit and precise (Hofstede, 2001, p. 212; Hall, 1977, p. 91). Additionally self-disclosure is predominant in individualistic cultures, involving transparency and direct communication styles (Gundykunst, 1998, p. 119). The concept of individualism is mostly found in Western societies (Yeo & Pang, 2017, p. 3). According to Hofstede’s (2001) Individualism Index the United States have the highest individualism score, followed by other developed Western countries (pp. 262-263). Collectivism on the other hand pertains to societies “in which people from birth onwards are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups, which throughout people’s lifetime continue to protect them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty” (Hofstede, 2001, p. 225). In collectivist societies, direct confrontation of another person is regarded rude and because saying “no” is a confrontation, the word is rarely used (Hofstede, Hofstede & Minkov, 2010, p. 106). Instead, maintaining harmony is of high value (Maddux, Kim, Okumura & Brett, 2012, p. 26).
1 ”According to Bernard Weiner (1986), one of the main proponents of attribution theory (AT), attributions of internal or external responsibility shape affective and behavioral responses to the person involved in the event. It is logical to extend AT to crisis communication” (Coombs, 2010, p. 37).