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Multicultural environments and their challenges to crisis communication

Dissertation
Author: Maria de Fatima Oliveira
Abstract:
In a global business environment, cultural understanding is an essential tool for successful communication and relationship building between organizations and audiences. However, the power of cultural values to modify individuals' ways of thinking and communicating is not well understood in terms of crisis communication management. Therefore, this study applied Sue's (1991, 2001) theory of cultural competence to examine the effect of cultural values on crisis communication planning, using three methodological approaches. First, grounded theory analysis was applied to qualitative interviews with 25 communication professionals concerning cultural influences on crisis. Second, a national online survey (N=172) assessed communication practitioners' attitudes toward, and knowledge about, other cultures, and their skills to respond to diverse cultures. Third, media portrayals of corporate crises were examined with semantic network analysis of news articles from the New York Times, USA Today, and the Wall Street Journal between January 1, 2007 and December, 31, 2008, to identify whether cultural aspects were mentioned. These approaches yielded five main findings. First, PR practitioners had difficulties in defining multiculturalism, often equating cultural diversity with communicating with Latinos. Second, interviewees saw cultural differences as just one aspect of diversity, emphasizing that age, religion, and education differences also affect corporate discourse. Third, although professionals considered culture a key element of crisis management, they did not feel prepared to handle the challenges of a multicultural crisis, nor did they report that they used culturally adjusted crisis strategies often. Fourth, regression analyses conducted on the survey data showed that skills to manage multicultural situations and openness to diverse knowledge significantly predict the relevance professionals attributed to culture when designing crisis communication strategies. Fifth, media accounts of crises did not mention cultural elements in the three newspapers investigated. By integrating cultural competence and crisis management frameworks, this study provides the foundation for an in-depth understanding of crises, where scholars can pair crisis strategies with audiences' cultural expectations. Instructors can incorporate this framework to their courses, preparing PR students to new demands of the profession. Finally, training initiatives focused on increasing levels of cultural competence can make organizations ready to the challenges of a global market.

vi TABLE OF CONTENTS

Page ABSTRACT ....................................................................................................................... iii DEDICATION .....................................................................................................................v LIST OF TABLES ............................................................................................................. ix LIST OF FIGURES .............................................................................................................x CHAPTER 1. INTRODUCTION ..........................................................................................................1 The Context of the Network Economy and Society ................................................6 Crises, Communication Strategies, and Social Construction of Reality ..................7 A Call for a New Perspective ...................................................................................8 Purpose and Significance of this Study .................................................................10 2. LITERATURE REVIEW ............................................................................................14 Crisis Episodes: Theory and Practice ....................................................................16 Crisis Stages ............................................................................................19 Handling the Challenges brought by Multiculturalism: Public Relations, Multicultural Environments and Cultural Competence .............27 Frameworks to Study Intercultural Interactions ........................................28 Framing Events and Constructing Perceptions of Organizations and crises .........37 Summary: Crises in a Networked Environment ....................................................39 3. METHODS ...................................................................................................................42 Study Design and Data Collection .........................................................................42 Interviews ............................................................................................43

vii Survey ............................................................................................46 News media coverage ................................................................................50 Data analysis ............................................................................................52 Interview Transcripts .................................................................................52 Survey Analysis .........................................................................................53 News Articles Analysis ..............................................................................57 4. FINDINGS .....................................................................................................................60 Interviews: Findings and Analysis .........................................................................61 Diversity and Its Various Elements ...........................................................63 Cultural Diversity and Crisis Strategies: Corporate Asset or Overemphasized Concept? .........................................66 Proper Planning, Channels, and Tactics ....................................................71 Addressing Diversity .................................................................................76 Survey: Findings and Analysis ..............................................................................78 Histograms of the Variables.......................................................................83 Conditions ............................................................................................89 Regression Analysis ...................................................................................97 News Articles: Findings and Analysis .................................................................102 Centering Resonance Analysis Maps.......................................................103 5. DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSION..........................................................................123 Discussion of Key Findings .................................................................................124 Understanding Multiculturalism and its Role in Crisis Communication .........................................................................124 Getting Prepared to Manage Multicultural Crises ...................................128

viii Addressing Diversity? Not often! ............................................................130 Implications ..........................................................................................133 Limitations ..........................................................................................137 Future Research ..........................................................................................140 Conclusion ..........................................................................................145 REFERENCES CITED ..........................................................................................146 APPENDIXES A.INTERVIEW INVITATION .......................................................................................167 B. INTERVIEW PROTOCOL AND CONSENT ...........................................................168 C. SURVEY QUESTIONNAIRE ....................................................................................170 D. ON-LINE SURVEY INVITATION ...........................................................................175 E. FIRST SURVEY REMINDER ...................................................................................176 F. SECOND SURVEY REMINDER ..............................................................................177 G. ON-LINE SURVEY INITIAL PAGE AND CONSENT FORM ...............................178

ix LIST OF TABLES

Table Page 1. Demographic Characteristics of Interviewees ..................................................... 62 2. PRSA participating chapters and respective membership ................................... 81 3. Demographic Characteristics of Survey Participants .......................................... 82 4. Summary of t-test group statistics and results for variable 1 and years of experience ............................................................................................................ 90 5. Summary of t-test group statistics and results for variable 2 and years of experience ............................................................................................................ 91 6. Summary of t- test group statistics and results for variable 1 and location of workforce ......................................................................................................... 92 7. Summary of t- test group statistics and results for variable 2 and location of workforce ......................................................................................................... 93 8. Summary of t- test group statistics and results for variable 1 and years of experience ............................................................................................................ 93 9. Summary of t- test group statistics and results for variable 2 and years of experience ............................................................................................................ 94 10. Summary of one-way ANOVA descriptives and results for variable 1 and type of industry .................................................................................................... 96 11. Summary of one-way ANOVA descriptives and results for variable 2 and type of industry .................................................................................................... 97 12. Multiple regression analysis for variable 1 .......................................................... 98 13. Multiple regression analysis for variable 2 ........................................................ 100

x LIST OF FIGURES

Figure Page 1. Variable 1 Histogram ........................................................................................... 84 2. Variable 2 Histogram ........................................................................................... 85 3. Variable 3 Histogram ........................................................................................... 86 4. Variable 4 Histogram ........................................................................................... 87 5. Variable 5 Histogram ........................................................................................... 88 6. News Articles Distribution ................................................................................ 105 7. 2007 CRA Map for the New York Times .......................................................... 107 8. 2008 CRA Map for the New York Times .......................................................... 109 9. 2007 CRA Map for the USA Today .................................................................. 112 10. 2008 CRA Map for the USA Today .................................................................. 115 11. 2007 CRA Map for the Wall Street Journal....................................................... 117 12. 2008 CRA Map for the Wall Street Journal....................................................... 120

1 CHAPTER 1 INTRODUCTION “For in our shrinking globe man can ill afford cultural illiteracy.” Edward Hall in Beyond Culture (p. 35), 1976

The need for cultural understanding, foretold by Hall (1976) thirty-two years ago, could not be more imperative in our day. Individuals and organizations create and share cultural values through their communication practices (Sha, 2006). Culture influences communication exchanges in all areas of human interaction, from interpersonal instances to organizational environments (Collier, 1989). Social, historical, and cultural contexts play a role in the way which audiences interpret corporations’ messages (Berger, 1999). As a result, public relations theory needs to take into account the influence of diverse cultural identities on public relations strategies (Banks, 2000). As Grunig and Grunig (2003) postulated, public relations practices aim to build relationships with key audiences in order to shape corporations’ missions and strategies in accordance with audiences’ preferences. However, often key audiences are culturally diverse and their backgrounds need to be accounted for when communication strategies are planned and implemented (Taylor & Kent, 1999; Zaharna, 2000). As Wakefield (2001) stated, a global market composed of a multiethnic audience is currently a reality to the vast majority of companies. Indeed, with the widespread use of the Internet, worldwide presence is both a promise and a threat for anyone (Benkler, 2006). We live in a network society where incessant and pervasive cross-border interactions are both possible and cost- and time-effective (Castells, 2000 a, b). The interconnectedness of a globalized society is a key element for public relations and crisis

2 communication strategies. In effect, during corporate crises, new technologies have the potential to make every local event an international crisis (Martinelli & Briggs, 1998; Taylor, 2000). Even apart from the role of the Internet, crises are created and resolved through communication (Hearit & Courtright, 2004) and cultural values affect the meanings individuals attribute to crisis events and corporate responses to these situations (Eisenberg & Riley, 2000). Several examples illustrate the ways in which crises in our global society and economy have multinational and multicultural effects. As a first instance, ten years ago Asian countries, including Indonesia, Thailand, and South Korea, faced a serious financial crisis. Foreign investors, wary of the lack of corporate transparency in those countries, sensed that a financial crisis could erupt at any time. By pulling their money out, foreign investors indeed triggered a financial crisis that greatly affected the region. Ten years have passed and those countries have been able to orchestrate a turnaround; nonetheless, currently their economies are heavily based on exports, and foreign investments in Indonesia, Thailand, and South Korea are still undersized. Despite their current economic strength, these countries have yet not been able to change foreign investors’ negative perceptions (Wong, 2007). The ongoing U.S. subprime mortgage crisis provides another example of the interconnectedness between corporations around the world and the consequences for society. Since mid-2007, banks and their stakeholders all over the world have felt the impact of what was supposedly a U.S. crisis (Associated Press Wire, 2007). National damages—understood here as economic, reputational, and emotional losses—have been massive. Thousands of people have lost their houses, and financial institutions have lost

3 billions of dollars, pushing the U.S. to face a frightening recession. However, the subprime crisis has much broader consequences. Indeed, it represents a macro-crisis that has put at risk the financial system worldwide (Palm Beach Post, 2008). When single corporations face crises, these troubling events can also encompass multicultural perceptions and multinational consequences, as crises affecting Merck’s VIOXX and Mattel’s toys showed. In fact, lead poisoning caused by Mattel’s toy cars led to the discovery of very different perceptions about toys’ safety among Chinese manufacturers. According to Emily Cao, a sales representative for a major Chinese producer of stuffed playthings, before Mattel’s recall European companies had requested a substitution of vinyl or plastic noses, which may contain toxic chemicals, for embroidered noses on stuffed toys. According to Cao, for the Chinese producers the European request was an exaggeration of minimal risks. The request was ignored. After Mattel’s recall, safety issues are being taken much more seriously by Chinese toy producers (Johnson, 2007). Crises like these are created, described, and resolved through communication (Hearit & Courtright, 2004). Communicative actions, influenced by cultural perceptions and values, help to create reality through the meanings ascribed to situations (Eisenberg & Riley, 2000). Although variants on the definition of culture are plentiful, this study will follow the definition proposed by Banks (2000): culture “is to be defined as systems of meaning group members acquire through experiential apprenticeship” (p.12). As Hall (1976) affirmed, cultural systems and their functions within a specific group are learned through experiences and are so intrinsic that these systems of meanings act as a lens defining the way in which individuals interpret situations. Cultural values modify

4 individuals’ acts of thinking, judging situations, and communicating (Banks, 2000; Hall, 1976). Cultural and communicative practices shape organizations’ environments, polices, products, and behavior. Indeed, organizations are produced and reproduced by their communication practices (Falkheimer, 2007; Stohl, 2000). In this study, organizations are viewed as the result of a pastiche of influences brought by every individual to the constitutive system of meanings that represents a corporation. Employees, managers, suppliers, consumers, activists, governmental agencies and corporate officers are some examples of stakeholders who influence and are influenced by organizational discourse and behavior. Corporate crises are not analyzed as static facts either. Indeed, as Heath (2004) and Heath and Millar (2004) argued, crises are interpretative events. They are interruptions of the narrative of normality, where individuals involved seek to make sense of a new reality, evaluating and reinterpreting it. According to this social constructivist approach, crisis events have multiple alternative meanings that could be chosen by diverse stakeholders (Burr, 1998). As Stohl (2000) claimed, cultural values and habits form the basis to interpret critical moments. Crisis communication scholarship originally focused on types of responses and characteristics of crisis episodes in order to propose effective response strategies. As Coombs (1999) argued, understanding the most appropriate response strategies to be paired with different types of crisis events can enhance organizations’ chances for a quick recovery. However, audiences’ perceptions ought to have a role in crisis strategies, particularly because attributions of responsibility and interpretations of a crisis event are subjective judgments, mediated by such factors as traditions and cultural values (Lee,

5 2004). Some scholars have already investigated how different cultural backgrounds influence audiences’ perceptions of crises and crisis communication strategies. For example, Bardhan (2003) showed that the public relations profession and public relations strategies are conceptualized in India differently from pre-established Western dominant models; Huang, Lin, and Su (2005) studied whether crisis communication strategies in Taiwan differ from tactics and frameworks normally applied in Western countries; Kim, Cha, and Kim (2008) adapted Western measurements of corporate capabilities to handle crises in the South Korean social, cultural, political, and economic environment; and Xu (2006) showed that culture influences consumers’ perceptions of corporate crises in China. As these examples show, culturally diverse audiences and their perceptions of crisis events and communication strategies have been investigated to a certain extent. However, crisis communication scholars have yet not examined whether communication practitioners consciously factor culture in when planning crisis communication strategies and designing corporate responses. This project aims to close this theoretical gap, examining whether cultural influences affect communication professionals’ design of crisis strategies and whether culturally sensitive communication strategies are consistently applied. In a society where the vast majority of audiences is multicultural, it is necessary to examine how cultural values influence organizations and crisis situations. Understanding how producers of communication strategies—communications professionals—deal with cultural variability is as important as understanding how audiences perceive these messages. Nevertheless, this aspect has been overlooked by most scholars and practitioners. In particular, this research project examines the extent to

6 which communication professionals take cultural elements into account during the pre- crisis stage when preventive procedures can avoid or minimize an acute crisis. Finally, expanding crisis communication scholarship, this study also suggests that audiences’ anticipated responses to different types of crisis and perceptions about the level of corporate responsibility need to be understood within their cultural context in order to produce the most appropriate and effective crisis communication strategies. The Context of the Network Economy and Society Castells (2000a) argued that the context of the network economy and society epitomizes a new form of social interaction brought by modernity. The industrial revolution gave human beings the means to control nature, and from this point on, new forms of socialization made rationality, information, and culture the top values in society. Developments in transportation, information storage and distribution, and communication technologies shrunk vast geographical distances. Indeed, political boundaries are less and less relevant to transnational businesses’ goals (Epley, 1992). Capital flows are coordinated globally, through integrated financial markets that work around the clock. Research, development, and production of new goods happen through networks of business partners spread over the globe (Castells, 2000a). However, the network society is not simply the result of a new economic order. Information and communication technologies have fostered new modalities of social interaction. Access to different cultures has exponentially increased, and virtual forms of interactivity have altered cultural manifestations and the processes of meaning creation. Globalization brings more than international foods and products to one community; it also fosters a process whereby traditional and novel cultural values and perceptions are

7 combined, yielding new cultural identities (Castells, 2000b). As Curtin and Gaither (2007) stated, the new economic and social order “embraces culture as the currency of the globalized information age” (p. 197). Organizations mirror society’s interconnectedness. Many companies have abandoned traditional static hierarchies. They have become similar to flexible webs, where interconnections transcend geographical and political boundaries. Indeed, the network society calls for a system of business partners, organized around suppliers and consumers, and able to produce goods in a time- and cost-effective fashion (Castells, 2000a; Stohl, 2000). As a result of this scenario, companies have to deal with multicultural environments and expectations as well as with multicultural crises. Crises, Communication Strategies, and Social Construction of Reality The literature suggests that crisis events share three common attributes: unpredictability, a sense of urgency, and a significant potential for destruction. As numerous scholars have argued, crises are unpredictable situations that bring serious threats to stakeholders’ interests and to organizational goals. Such critical events jeopardize companies’ reputation and legitimacy, putting at risk organizations’ survival (Coombs, 1999; Fearn-Banks, 2002; Hearit & Courtright, 2004; Heath & Millar, 2004; Lerbinger, 1997; Seeger, Sellnow, & Ulmer, 2003). Indeed, crises can be characterized as a turning point in the relationship between an organization and its stakeholders (Banks, 2000; Lerbinger, 1997) where companies struggle to regain control of the situation by making their interpretation of the event—their chosen narrative—the predominant one (Heath, 2004; Heath & Millar, 2004). Therefore, crisis communication strategies have a twofold role. First, these actions aim to control damages, inform audiences of immediate

8 risks and procedures to be followed and report corrective actions (Fearn-Banks, 2002). Second, crisis communication strategies play a symbolic role, aiming to construct a positive account of the events and the organizational actions (Coombs, 1998). Crises put in jeopardy more than companies’ profits. Economic losses and liability are very concrete consequences of such critical events (Sellnow & Ulmer, 2004). Nonetheless, there are many other corporate assets at risk during crises. Corporate image, reputation, and legitimacy, as much as audiences’ trust, are based on concrete and consistent organizational behavior and discourse. All these assets have symbolic meanings that are put in danger during crises (Coombs, 1998, 1999; Massey, 2004). In effect, as Weick (1988) argued, “the organization and the environment are in the mind of the actor” (p. 307). Crises are symbolic constructs with numerous alternative meanings that are culturally bounded (Burr, 1998). Hence, crisis communication scholarship should integrate an understanding of cultures and cultural influences within the study of crisis communication strategies. A Call for a New Perspective Given the level of interconnectedness of society, it is naïve to consider that companies can be completely monocultural. Stohl (2000) pointed out that corporate communication practices have intercultural dimensions even when an organization does not have an international presence. Citing a report on the workforce composition, she highlighted “the increasing racial, gender, ethnic, cultural, lifestyle, and age mix of American organizations” (p. 324). Differences in cultural habits and communication styles are obvious among diverse ethnicities and cultures, which may hinder effective patterns of communication

9 exchanges and the process of meaning creation. Indeed, cultural values influence how situations are perceived and how communication strategies are designed and understood (Curtin & Gaither, 2007; Stohl, 2000). Public relations particularly needs to heed cultural influences because its practices aim to create and recreate meanings, based on the mutable nature of people and communities (Curtin & Gaither, 2007). As Banks (2000) defined it, public relations’ goal is to coordinate the communication between an organization and its audiences in a positive and constructive fashion for both sides. Public relations practices encompass multiple systems of meanings based on diverse cultural settings that are in constant change. In particular, a globalized society calls for organizations that are able to recognize and respect diversity, reflecting such issues in their communication practices (Holmstrom, 2005). Despite its growing importance, multicultural public relations still is an underdeveloped field of research, dominated by quantitative assessments of cultures defined as static sets of traits (Falkheimer & Heide, 2006). Studies of the variable effects of cultural differences on public relations and crisis communication strategies are relatively rare (Sriramesh & Vercic, 2003). As Freitag (2002) pointed out, even the term “international public relations” is becoming outdated. In a globalized society, virtually all communication practices are multinational and multicultural. The vast majority of audiences is multicultural regardless of their specific geographical location. Even companies operating within U.S. boundaries will most likely address multicultural audiences. To explore the role of multiculturalism in crises, this project adopts a perspective largely used in other research fields, such as psychology, education, and nursing, based

10 on the theories of Sue (1991, 2001), who argued that multicultural settings and encounters are too rich and complex to be divided into sets of discrete traits. He proposed that to efficiently work in a globalized society professionals need to (a) be aware of their own beliefs and attitudes towards several cultures, including their own, (b) be open to novel knowledge, actively looking for accurate information about other social and cultural perspectives, and (c) be committed to respect diversity and act against prejudice. This perspective can compel crisis communication strategies to take multiculturalism into account. Purpose and Significance of this Study Primarily, this study seeks to extend current crisis communication scholarship by proposing that cultural awareness and competence are basic tools for effective corporate crisis strategies. As a result, this study proposes that communication professionals and corporations need to include a cultural dimension in their thinking about crises. Coming from different cultures, audiences and public relations practitioners may differently perceive the locus and level of corporate responsibility as well as the proper use of crisis responses to specific crisis situations. This study concentrates on three goals. The first is to identify whether multicultural influences are considered relevant by communication professionals during crises. The second goal is to assess which individual characteristics influence communication professionals’ ability to develop crisis communication strategies with cultural differences in mind. The third goal is to explore whether representative U.S. media focus on cultural elements of crises and if so, which cultural aspects are the most relevant.

11 These three goals led to four major research questions, which are developed into sub-questions in the next chapter. The first research question sought to establish practitioners’ awareness of multiculturalism: RQ1: How do communication professionals themselves define multiculturalism and its role in crisis communication? Exploring further the role of cultural influences on crises, it is necessary to assess how personal characteristics may affect communication professionals’ ability to culturally adjust crisis communication strategies as well as their capacity to identify and avoid or minimize potential problems caused by conflicting cultural values. Therefore, this study borrows a model for cultural competence proposed by Sue (2001), to examine how three specific competencies— attitudes and beliefs, knowledge, and skills— influence the design of crisis communication strategies. This model is expressed in the second research question: RQ2: How do communication professionals assess their own abilities to understand and design effective crisis communication strategies for other cultures? Prior scholarship has identified cultural misunderstandings as one factor that makes already-acute crises worse (Lee, 2004). However, the next research question examines the underexplored influence of cultural understanding before a crisis hits. Most commonly, crisis communication experts adopt a three-stage model to describe crisis episodes: precrisis, crisis, and postcrisis. Broadly, during the precrisis stage corporations scan the environment to identify risk factors and prevent potential crises (Coombs, 1999). Diverse cultural values may result in an ineffective process of environment scanning where risk factors are disregarded due to lack of cultural sensitivity. Organizations are

12 immersed in cultural contexts during their entire life span, and the ability to consider other cultural paradigms can prevent sensitive topics from becoming active crises. To assess what factors influence communication professionals’ ability to efficiently scan diverse environments, the third research question was proposed: RQ3: How much do communication professionals take diverse cultures into account when scanning environments for risk factors before a crisis occurs? As a complementary step, it is also important to understand how the media portray the cultural aspects of crises. Indeed, as a consequence of the network society, corporate crises are experienced in virtually real time by people in different geographical locations and with diverse cultural backgrounds through media coverage of these episodes. News frames emphasize certain aspects of a perceived reality, making these constructs more salient (Entman, 1993; Gitlin, 1980). This chosen salience influences media and public agendas, shaping how society perceives and understands an event, and thereby providing an index of what cultural elements the society deems important (Fairhust & Sarr, 1996; Knight, 1999; McCombs & Ghanem, 2001). To identify how representative U.S. media portray cultural aspects of crises, a final research question was posited: RQ4: What cultural elements, if any, are typically emphasized by the media when covering corporate crises? In summary, this study aims to extend current understanding of crisis communication strategies by (a) examining communication professionals’ perceived relevance of cultural elements during crises; (b) assessing how personal attitudes and beliefs, openness to new knowledge, and communication skills influence communication

13 professionals when they seek potential sources of crises as well as when they design crisis communication strategies; and (c) identifying whether cultural elements are highlighted by U.S. media when covering corporate crises. Textual analysis of interviews with communication professionals will be used to answer the first research question. Statistical analysis of survey’s results conducted with communication professionals will be used to assess the individual abilities of practitioners, answering the second and third research questions. Semantic network analysis of media coverage of corporate crises will be used to respond the last research question. All four research questions will be further developed in the next chapter, within a detailed account of theoretical frameworks and prior research.

14 CHAPTER 2 LITERATURE REVIEW In 1871, Tyler offered one of the first systematic definitions of culture, referring to it as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, custom, and many other capabilities and habits acquired by man [and woman] as a member of society” (Macnamara, 2003, p. 323). Since then, many other definitions have been crafted; however, despite its relevance to the study of societies, organizations, and their communication practices, a definition of culture is not a settled issue. For example, Hall (1976) defined culture as the meanings and practices learned through experiences within a specific community. For him, “the natural act of thinking is greatly modified by culture” p. 7), so that cultural values influence how people select aspects of reality and act upon them. Similarly, Banks (2000) stated that cultures are “to be defined as systems of meaning group members acquire through experiential apprenticeship” (p. 12). Cultures are based on specific social rules that predict, at least to a certain extent, the behavior of individuals who belong to the same cultural group (Sha, 2006). Culture affects people’s processes of perception, acting as a lens through which specific groups see the world and ascribe relevance to issues (Jandt, 2007). As Hofstede (1984) proposed, culture is “the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one human group from another” (p. 21). This mental programming influences how individuals interact with each other and with their environment. Individuals’ and organizations’ communication practices are the means by which they create, share, and challenge meaning and cultural values (Sha, 2006). Above all, cultures emerge in communication contexts. Cultural values influence and are influenced

15 by communication exchanges that occur in several realms, from interpersonal instances to organizational environments (Collier, 1989). Even corporations take shape through people’s processes of meaning creation and reality interpretation. These processes are increasingly altered by interactions among people from diverse cultures (Stohl, 2000). Crises too are the result of individuals’ interpretations of reality (Heath & Millar, 2004). As part of organizational life, behavior, and discourse, the meaning of a crisis accretes through ongoing interactions among people who seek to interpret that unusual and unexpected event (Heath, 2004). Individuals’ reactions to reality are strongly influenced by their beliefs, values, and culture. When human beings interact, they do so based on a deeply interconnected web of cultural values and traditions (Stohl, 2000). Therefore, it is impossible to leave cultural values and expectations out of crisis strategy. This research project focuses on the role of cultural influences in crisis communication strategies, investigating crises and crisis responses as social constructs. The research questions presented in the last chapter explore whether and how communication professionals perceive a role for cultural variability in crisis communication strategies and stages. To lay the groundwork, the first section of this chapter discusses crisis definitions and crisis phases. The second section introduces and describes a multicultural approach to public relations scholarship, and theories of culture and cultural competence that can improve our understanding of multicultural influences on crises and crisis communication strategies. The third section focuses on the function of news coverage of crises. The last section emphasizes that cultural diversity is a central element in our globalized society, embedded in corporations’ daily routines and

16 communication practices. In each section the research questions and sub-questions are presented in detail. Crisis Episodes: Theory and Practice Crises represent serious threats to the most fundamental goals of an organization and its stakeholders. These events are unexpected and sometimes unpredictable. No matter what the size of an organization, a crisis interrupts normal business and damages corporate reputation; it can imperil future growth, profitability, and even the company’s survival. Crises jeopardize the interests of employees, managers, suppliers, stockholders, victims, and community members. Sometimes lives are at stake. As a result, crisis episodes affect individuals’ sense of reality, security, and normality (Seeger et al., 2003). Problems happen at companies every day, but one single crisis may be enough to significantly damage or even destroy an organization (Coombs, 1999; Fearn-Banks, 2002; Hearit & Courtright, 2004; Heath & Millar, 2004; Lerbinger, 1997). For example, more than two decades after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, on March 24, 1989, the company still battles against economic and reputational losses. Exxon’s communication strategies work to foster a pro-environmental persona, attributing the cause of the incident to a myriad of factors (Heath, 2004). However, the company’s actions contradict the pro-environmental façade. Exxon spent twenty years in a legal battle to avoid paying $470 million in interest on more than $507.5 million in punitive damages following the 11 million gallon spill of crude in Prince William Sound. It was not until June 30, 2009 that Exxon decided not to appeal further and announced that it would soon make a payment on the interest accrued during its years of resistance (Pemberton, 2009).

Full document contains 189 pages
Abstract: In a global business environment, cultural understanding is an essential tool for successful communication and relationship building between organizations and audiences. However, the power of cultural values to modify individuals' ways of thinking and communicating is not well understood in terms of crisis communication management. Therefore, this study applied Sue's (1991, 2001) theory of cultural competence to examine the effect of cultural values on crisis communication planning, using three methodological approaches. First, grounded theory analysis was applied to qualitative interviews with 25 communication professionals concerning cultural influences on crisis. Second, a national online survey (N=172) assessed communication practitioners' attitudes toward, and knowledge about, other cultures, and their skills to respond to diverse cultures. Third, media portrayals of corporate crises were examined with semantic network analysis of news articles from the New York Times, USA Today, and the Wall Street Journal between January 1, 2007 and December, 31, 2008, to identify whether cultural aspects were mentioned. These approaches yielded five main findings. First, PR practitioners had difficulties in defining multiculturalism, often equating cultural diversity with communicating with Latinos. Second, interviewees saw cultural differences as just one aspect of diversity, emphasizing that age, religion, and education differences also affect corporate discourse. Third, although professionals considered culture a key element of crisis management, they did not feel prepared to handle the challenges of a multicultural crisis, nor did they report that they used culturally adjusted crisis strategies often. Fourth, regression analyses conducted on the survey data showed that skills to manage multicultural situations and openness to diverse knowledge significantly predict the relevance professionals attributed to culture when designing crisis communication strategies. Fifth, media accounts of crises did not mention cultural elements in the three newspapers investigated. By integrating cultural competence and crisis management frameworks, this study provides the foundation for an in-depth understanding of crises, where scholars can pair crisis strategies with audiences' cultural expectations. Instructors can incorporate this framework to their courses, preparing PR students to new demands of the profession. Finally, training initiatives focused on increasing levels of cultural competence can make organizations ready to the challenges of a global market.