There is a useful but thin thread in the crisis communication research that attempts to understand the role of culture in crisis management. This is an important topic because many crises involve transnational corporations managing a crisis in an unfamiliar cultural context. There is no substitute for local knowledge during a crisis. Local experts provide insights into culture, language use, legal concerns, and media systems. The dominant crisis communication theories (Situational Crisis Communication Theory and Image Restoration Theory) are Westerns theories. Speaking for SCCT, the theory was developed by an American with a focus on crisis communication in the U.S. The ideas have worked well in Europe given the similarities in culture. The application of SCCT is Eastern cultures should require modification. The heart of SCCT are the attributions stakeholders make about crisis responsibility. I have always argued that the crisis is driven by stakeholder perspectives. People in Eastern cultures can make different attributions of crisis responsibility and react differently to crisis response strategies compared to those in Western cultures. Culture is a modify that crisis managers need to take into account when apply SCCT in Eastern cultures.
Zhu, Anagondahalli & Zhang (2017) have an article in Public Relation Review that speaks to the cultural differences in crisis communication. They explore the reactions of McDonald’s and KFC to food safety crises. A key finding is that McDonald’s responded quickly with an apology while KFC at first denied responsibility before seriously addressing the crisis. It is good to know we can find organizations miscommunicating about a crisis anywhere in the world. They argue that the collectivist culture and power distance can help to explain how culture lead to different attributions of crisis responsibility (blame) and reactions to the crisis response strategies. For instance, the authors argue the apology violated expectation in a positive manner because an apology in the Chinese and Japanese cultures shows “a recognition of a burden suffered by the target” (Zhu et al., 2017, p. 4). Social media was played an important role as well. China has an intense use of social media. McDonald’s apology did not gain public attention until important bloggers started discussing the apology. The analysis suggests influential bloggers can be a critical channel for crisis communication in China. Again, the importance of influential bloggers was tied to power distance and collectivistic dimensions of culture.
The insights from the comparative case study are interesting and provide clear avenues for future research. Additional studies can test how well explanations for these cases can be applied to crisis communication in China more broadly. Hopefully this article will stimulate additional work then can extend and provide additional verification for the lessons identified in this study. We need more crisis communication studies that can use culture so effectively to explain the outcomes from crisis communication efforts.
Questions to Consider
- What other theories can help to explain the role of influential bloggers in this case?
- How can the analysis help Western organizations facing crises in Japan?
Zhu, L., Anagondahalli, D., & Zhang, A. (2017). Social media and culture in crisis communication: McDonald’s and KFC crises management in China. Public Relations Review.