Audiences lie at the heart of all communications and different cultures will respond to messages differently.
As a French person who just started working in the UK, I have noticed that even between these two countries there are huge differences between how organisations communicate with their audiences.
Now that I’m officially a Londoner, and because I’m sure I can’t be the only one who has noticed a difference in communication styles after moving abroad, I decided to do some research into how crisis communication can differ from one country to another and how messaging in a crisis situation can be improved by acknowledging cultural differences.
Here are the key differences I noticed:
Tone of voice
The difference of tones particularly struck me. It turns out that while one message might be appropriate in one country, it might be completely irrelevant in another.
Organisations in Britain tend to adopt a more familiar and empathetic tone than those in France.
Apologising, admitting flaws, or opting for a human-oriented response is common in the UK when a crisis occurs. In France, restraint and sobriety are more common when it comes to responding to a crisis. Even when there are victims, empathy is usually conveyed in a reserved tone while British companies tend to express compassion in a more personal way.
In April 2019, a food poisoning outbreak at a retirement home in France resulted in five deaths. In the subsequent press release, empathy is present, but it is expressed in a serious and clinical tone, as it is common practice in France*.
However, an example from the British health sector shows a different perspective. After concerns were raised to East Kent Hospitals NHS regarding a series of allegedly preventable baby deaths, the hospitals issued a statement saying: “We wholeheartedly apologise to families for whom we could have done things differently.” They expressed emotions in a more direct way than in the French example, even though the investigation about the babies’ deaths was still ongoing.
Western companies sometimes have to adapt their response according to the demands of an audience or market. This sometimes means apologising even when liability is not clear.
When I started working with British organisations, I noticed that “sorry” was not a forbidden word and that it was often used whenever an incident or disruption occurred. A British website even ironically totals the apologies made by transport companies since the beginning of the year.
Some studies show that collectivist cultures, like China, tend to prefer messages of reconciliation which help to balance society. Whereas individualistic societies, like France and Britain, are more concerned with the actions an organisation is taking.
In 2012, McDonald’s crisis communication response was considered a success in China, after the company issued a full apology following a hygiene-related scandal. This response showed a good understanding of the affected audience, society’s expectations and the cultural norms.
This example highlights why companies must be prepared to go against their natural instinct not to apologise when operating in cultures where apologies are not just accepted, but also welcomed.
Different audiences won’t always react to a message in the same way.
After an accident on the railway caused delays, London North Eastern Railway posted a message filled with kindness and empathy. Their message reminded passengers that someone had passed away and asked people to put the disruption into perspective. The reaction to the tweet was overwhelmingly supportive and compassionate. Emotions were at the centre of the discussion and people congratulated the rail company for their humanity.
We are sorry for the disruption today. The missed meetings, people who were late home, and had to sit on the floor because of cancelled services.
Someone didn’t return home to their family today, which puts everything into perspective.
Always be kind it costs nothing ❤️
— London North Eastern Railway (@LNER) October 15, 2019
This communication of feelings seems to be accepted in the UK, but it is not the standard in France. In fact, a similar response in France would have likely resulted in public offence and backlash. French companies are not expected to act as human beings and this attitude could even be seen by audiences as an attempt to manipulate the public.
Many brands have learned the hard way that their communications must match the culture they operate in and avoid cultural appropriations that can be seen as offensive. Recently several companies have faced widespread criticism and boycotts following misjudged marketing campaigns.
In 2018, the luxury brand Gucci was criticised after launching an “Indy Full Turban” headscarf. Social media users pointed out that the accessory, and its name, were offensive to the Sikh culture.
Dear @gucci, the Sikh Turban is not a hot new accessory for white models but an article of faith for practising Sikhs. Your models have used Turbans as ‘hats’ whereas practising Sikhs tie them neatly fold-by-fold. Using fake Sikhs/Turbans is worse than selling fake Gucci products pic.twitter.com/sOaKgNmgwR
— Harjinder Singh Kukreja (@SinghLions) May 16, 2019
The Decathlon’s hijab’s controversy took place in France in February 2019. The much-appreciated company endured harsh backlash online after representatives and other influencers blamed the company for selling the product. The progressiveness of the brand was clearly not in line with the country’s values which ultimately resulted in Decathlon having to remove the product from their website.
Décathlon se soumet également à #islamisme qui ne tolère les femmes que la tête couverte d'un hijab pour affirmer leur appartenance à la oumma et leur soumission aux hommes#Décathlon renie donc les valeurs de notre civilisation sur l'autel du marché et du marketing communautaire pic.twitter.com/3AFRAXmPCt
— Lydia Guirous (@LydiaGuirous) February 24, 2019
Cultural influence is a factor that should never be underestimated when drafting a crisis communication response. Depending on the country, expectations change, and so should your strategy. On that account, a reflection on culture needs to be part of your response plan and must be incorporated into your crisis drills.
*Translation: “5 residents unfortunately passed away”. “We share our condolences to the families of the deceased residents”.