September 23, 2020

Crisis Management: From Anticipation to Action—Tactics for Multinational Companies Navigating Cross-Border Catastrophes

Corporate Counsel

Faegre Drinker's product liability and mass torts deputy leader Michael C. Zogby, associate Kaitlyn Stone and Sneha Desai, deputy general counsel, litigation at BASF Corp., authored the article “Crisis Management: From Anticipation to Action – Tactics for Multinational Companies Navigating Cross-Border Catastrophes” for Corporate Counsel. This final installment of a three-part series focuses on how to develop an educated and effective — and careful — approach to crisis communication in the international business setting. The full text of the article appears below.

Calamity does not respect geographic boundaries, and—as the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated—the worst catastrophes often spread across multiple locales and require careful consideration of varying expectations and cultural considerations. In the first two installments of this three-part series, we addressed how business crises vary in scope and scale, and what companies may do to anticipate and effectively manage such situations (read Part I and Part II). This installment looks at the ways in which these crises may vary from location to location, and analyzes the complications unique to managing a global crisis on multiple fronts.

President John F. Kennedy famously referenced the etymology of weiji, the Chinese word for crisis in his 1960 campaign speeches, in a now oft-repeated soundbite: According to Kennedy, “the Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity.” While it is true the first character, wēi, translates to mean “dangerous” or “precarious,” linguists have explained that the second character, jī, is polysemous and does not mean “opportunity”—it is closer to something like “change point.”

If even the words we use to communicate the idea of “crisis” around the globe can be misinterpreted, how easy might it be to misunderstand a culture’s expectations for, and approaches to, managing a catastrophe? This third installment focuses on how to develop an educated and effective—and careful—approach to crisis communication in the international business setting.

Culture’s Role in a Crisis

Although the concept of crisis is a universal one, culture plays a significant role in emergency response. Studies, like Mrudula Anne, Jia Wang and Deborah Chang’s “The Impact of Culture and Society on Crisis Perception, Management, and Learning in the Indian Context,” featured in Adult Education Research Conference, have found that culture plays an important role in the way individuals handle crises. When crisis hits, people react and recover within the context of their individual backgrounds, viewpoints and values. Culture influences how an individual interprets and assigns meaning to a given crisis. It may even affect what qualifies as a crisis, or the perceived scale of the problem. Culture also influences how people perceive and convey traumatic stress through communication and behavior in connection with a crisis event, and influences an individual’s definition of what it takes to make him or her feel safe.

When anticipating, managing or recovering from a multinational crisis, cultural competency must be at the forefront of any effort. As discussed in “Cultural Approaches to Crisis Management,” featured in the Global Encyclopedia of Public Administration, Public Policy, and Governance, a connection exists between cultural competency and resiliency, because the former encourages constant learning, communication and coordination among diverse individuals in the crisis.

To cultivate culturally competent crisis management strategies, a company must first identify the specific culture-related needs of the business’s employees in all geographies, mindful that they are likely to differ based on the cultures prevalent in each locale. Creation and maintenance of cultural composition profiles (CCPs), or summaries of the current cultural prevalent in each of the company’s locations, may provide a resource from which to work. For example, CCPs are a tool recently employed by the Louisiana Office of Behavioral Health as part of its Crises Standards for Care Planning, to ensure health care organizations integrate cultural competency into their disaster responses. (See Louisiana Department of Health’s ESF-8 Health & Medical Section, State Hospital Crisis Standard of Care Guidelines in Disasters (Feb. 2018).) This device may be valuable to any organization seeking to maintain cultural competency and sensitivity as part of a crisis response plan. CCPs should aim to provide overviews of the cultures in each locale, including relevant histories, commonly held values, and widely-accepted norms in the culture.

If the global crisis relates to litigation or a government investigation, consider how the venue outside the United States responds to the scope of discovery demands, the definitions of “relevance” and “proportionality,” aggressive examinations or demands for “all documents,” and litigation timelines. For example, “Japanese people were culturally adverse to litigation because of the influence of Confucian thought. A society based on hierarchy and tight group relationships would inevitably prefer informal means of dispute resolution, and primarily conciliation. Litigation, based on objective parameters, careless of underlying social relationships, and highly disruptive, is something external to Japanese culture,” see Giorgio Fabio Colombo and Hiroshi Shimizu, “Litigation or Litigiousness? Explaining Japan’s “Litigation Bubble,” Oxford U Comparative L Forum 4 (2016). However, other scholars dispute the “cultural considerations” and focus instead on the institutional differences, where dispute resolution might be more common than litigation and trials. Litigation or investigation primers, such as “U.S. Patent Litigation 101” or “U.S. Mass Torts,” might help guide the global audience to de-mysticize the expectations and challenges, and also anticipate potential threats (e.g., emphasizing the importance of document and data preservation and following a legal hold). Providing a foundation for those who are unfamiliar with U.S. litigation or government investigations is critical in ensuring that there is internal alignment on how to manage the “crisis.”

Prioritize Culturally Competent Communication: Multiple Languages for Corporate Communications and Vendor Services

Prompt and frequent communication is essential when managing a business crisis. When addressing an emergency across multiple geographies, it is critical that oral and written crisis communications be available in all languages spoken by the company’s workforce. Remain mindful that although employees may be English-speaking, or may speak primarily English in the workplace, another language may be their preferred language, or they may best comprehend communications, especially in high-stakes settings rife with stress and emotion, in a language other than English. The company should take measures to ensure all team members have access to the company’s crisis communications in their preferred languages to maximize the effectiveness of these communications.

Consider what languages team members may wish to use to communicate about the crisis, too. If the company provides access to counselors for employees and families as part of its crisis response plan, or any other vendor-provided services, ensure that these vendors are equipped with interpreters and translators. Even if the majority of employees are English-speaking, be mindful that family members may speak different languages in the home, and all may be most comfortable communicating about the crisis and any fallout therefrom in their first or another language. Enabling individuals to engage about the crisis via the communication style most comfortable to them is key to ensuring a crisis response that leaves all involved feeling heard and appreciated. People feel comfortable if they feel understood. Also remain mindful that different cultures may have various perspectives on mental health treatment, and be sure to engage vendors with expertise in these potential cultural differences.

Prioritize Culturally Competent Communication: Storytelling as a Means of Distributing Key Data

When crafting communications to be used on multiple continents, consider adopting a narrative approach. As recognized by Randolph T. Barker and Kim Gower in “Strategic Application of Storytelling in Organizations: Toward Effective Communication in a Diverse World,” featured in The Journal of Business Communication, Vol. 47 No. 3, pp. 295-312 (June 25, 2010), storytelling is an effective cross-cultural communication tool. Narratives, with a basis in the human experience or human condition, may be thematically useful when assembling critical information for communication to the company and clients.

Prioritize Culturally Competent Communication: Cultural Brokers

To tailor communications to each locale, the company may consider engaging cultural brokers to assist with crisis response. (See U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Center for Mental Health Services, “Developing Cultural Competence in Disaster Mental Health Programs: Guiding Principles and Recommendations” (2003). See also Sujin Jang, “The Most Creative Teams Have a Specific Type of Cultural Diversity,” Harvard Business Review (July 24, 2018).) Bringing in community leaders in each geography before, during and in the aftermath of an emergency to help disseminate critical crisis communications may help to ensure corporate messaging is well received and widely disseminated. Welcoming employees to recommend certain cultural brokers for engagement in the crisis management process may encourage a sense of teamwork and inclusion in the company’s response to the crisis.

Cultural brokers may also serve as a resource for the company in terms of employee feedback: employees may feel more comfortable discussing their views of the company’s crisis management strategy with a cultural broker rather than with a superior within the business. It is essential for the company to analyze its employees’ opinions regarding crisis response in each locale, as expectations for what effective crisis management looks like may vary by geography. The concepts of face and face-saving may come into play here. For example, in Y. Siew-Yoong, J. Varughese and A. Pang’s “Communicating Crisis: How Culture Influences Image Repair in Western and Asian Government,” featured in Corporate Communications: An International Journal, it was observed that when confronted with a crisis situation necessitating a public relations response, Asian cultures were more likely to use mortification and corrective action strategies, while Western cultures were more likely to trend toward bolstering and defeasibility strategies, such as seeking to shift blame. They concluded: “In a crisis, it is not what is spoke—it is how it is spoken.” What makes up an effective crisis response may vary in each region in which the company does business, and understanding expectations in each locale will better equip the company to explain its approaches and strategies. Cultural brokers may help provide a window into candid feedback from the workforce in each locale.

Cultural Competency in the Age of All-Remote Access

It nearly goes without saying that employee-facing and externally facing members of a company’s crisis response team should be culturally competent in all aspects of their approach to crisis management. In order to convey respect and good will, these team members should dress appropriately for the culture, remain aware of expectations relative to social status, and receive training in these and all related cultural expectations for the geographies in which they operate.

In an age when in-person visits to offices and sites in other countries may be an impossibility, how to respect and engage in cultural norms virtually is a more complex analysis. The nuances of, say, how to respectfully meet a business colleague for the first time are complicated when people cannot congregate, shake hands or exchange business cards. Navigating who will speak first, and not interrupting another speaker, are undeniably more challenging over video chat than in person. Personal privacy and data privacy interests are also tantamount, and expectations change depending on the locale.

Equipping your crisis response team with an understanding of cultural norms is no longer sufficient in an all-virtual world—thought must be dedicated to establishing how the team will meet these expectations while sitting at home, communicating over video and telephone. Encouraging team members to communicate via email before a videoconference, to lay the groundwork for how virtual communications will proceed, may find success in an all-remote format. A candid approach may also be fruitful: acknowledging that communication via remote means is not always as seamless or ideal as in-person communication will help set expectations for all involved. Finally, encourage those involved to speak up if they feel the communications are not meeting their expectations. Invite everyone to pledge to be open to suggestions or criticisms relative to respecting cultural norms, and ask that they be willing to modify their behavior in the all-remote setting to ensure everyone involved feels respected and heard.

Conclusion

A crisis management plan equipped with cultural awareness, respect for diversity, and effective communication techniques will enable a business to thrive when it comes to addressing the other complications that arise when a crisis crosses geographic borders. A culturally competent approach to communication will assist when tackling supply chain interruptions that often accompany a global crisis. It will also help with coordinating the teams, internally and with external vendors, necessary to address data security issues that may arise in a catastrophe. If any opportunity is to be gained in a crisis situation, the process must begin with cultural competence in all geographies where the business is affected.

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Sneha Desai is deputy general counsel, litigation at BASF Corp. in Florham Park, New Jersey. In that role, she has responsibility for managing the company’s litigation portfolio in North America with a team of attorneys and legal assistants, and overseeing litigation-related policies and procedures. She also is responsible for its outside counsel diversity program. She joined BASF in January 2008, after specializing in complex commercial litigation for several years at Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler in New York.

Kaitlyn E. Stone is an associate in Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath’s products liability and mass torts practice group in the Florham Park office. Stone defends the interests of major pharmaceutical, medical device, and med tech companies in products liability cases. She has experience ranging from individual cases to class actions, and the majority of her practice focuses on multidistrict litigations and coordinated state proceedings. Stone also maintains an active pro bono practice, focused primarily on securing criminal expungement for indigent clients and veterans in New Jersey.

Michael C. Zogby is a partner and deputy leader of the nationally ranked products liability and mass torts group at Faegre Drinker. He also serves as co-chair of the firm’s health and life sciences litigation team. His trial and crisis management practice includes the defense of global clients in highly regulated industries in cross-border, complex litigation, mass tort, intellectual property, data privacy, and products liability actions filed by consumer and government parties.

Reprinted with permission from the September 23, 2020 edition of Corporate Counsel© 2020 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved.

Further duplication without permission is prohibited. ALMReprints.com – 877-257-3382 - reprints@alm.com

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