Developing Intercultural Crisis Communication Research

Summary of my recently published article – A State of Emergency in Crisis Communication: An Intercultural Crisis Communication Research Agenda from the Journal of Intercultural Communication Research

Today, organizational crises most often have cultural components – no matter whether we are discussing challenges within countries or we are discussing global crises. For example, increasing globalization poses unique challenges for practitioners as many do not feel prepared to handle multicultural crises or adapt their response strategies across different cultures.

There have been a number of examples of multinational organizations that have failed to effectively respond to crises in an international environment because they have chosen strategies that were culturally ‘tone deaf’. However, today there are a greater number of analyses considering aspects of intercultural communication as a vital part of understanding crisis communication. For example, studies examining cultural factors like power distance in crisis situations or studies of national culture and religious identification in crises all identify the importance of developing culturally-grounded analyses of crisis communication.

Yet, after conducting a systematic review of the English-language crisis communication literature from 1953 to 2015 (you know what I did with my Summer in 2016 🙂 ) in peer-reviewed journal articles, the state of crisis communication remains shockingly American-centric and fails to reflect the needs and global reality of crisis communication today. There is an opportunity for crisis and cultural researchers to meaningfully advance our understanding of both crisis and intercultural communication in ways that are conceptually complex but also practical.

Key Recommendations for Research in Intercultural Crisis Communication

Work to represent different experiences and voices in crisis communication.

The simplest way to begin this story is to ask the question, when scholars and practitioners talk about the field’s current understanding of ‘crisis communication,’ whose voices are being represented and in what contexts? The voice is disproportionately North American and specifically American with 60 percent of all empirical journal articles in crisis communication published since 1953 researching an American point of view. In addition, if the field considers voice and experience more broadly, the ‘West’s’ (i.e., North America and Europe) voice dominates with 83 percent of all articles articulating a developed world and western perspective.

That is not to say that the field of crisis communication is ignoring different cultural experiences. In recent years there has been a modest expansion of voices with research focusing on the US reducing significantly with research in Europe overall and Sweden, in particular, both significantly rising. In addition, there has been a significant increase in representation of Chinese voices in crisis communication research. Finally, there has been an increasing trend towards studying crisis communication within and between countries worldwide. However, there are some areas for developing a more effectively grounded understanding of crisis communication in a global context.

Therefore, I propose a few specific research objectives:

  1. Develop a more meaningful and global understanding of crisis communication. Certainly, continuing some of the more recent work is useful; however, the overall development of crisis research provides a template for the development of culturally grounded research. Begin with non-empirical research — especially conceptual analysis and ‘best-practice’ recommendations that are focused on different cultural backgrounds. Second, develop case studies that describe crisis communication in very different contexts and develop categorical understanding of the phenomenon. Third, develop qualitative analyses of cases followed by cross-sectional research along with quantitative and experimental research to build and test theory.
  2. Consider the US as part of the world community in crisis communication. Unfortunately, even though more multi-cultural research is developing, very little of it compares American crisis communication with crisis communication elsewhere. Most cross-cultural comparisons rely on comparisons elsewhere. There are notable exceptions, but the problem with this is that without direct comparisons of the US with other countries or regions, there is little to directly compare the body of knowledge we have about crises with the new knowledge in other places we develop.
  3. Broaden cross-cultural research beyond a regional focus. At present, when there is cross-cultural research, it’s conducted within regions instead of fundamentally comparing how people with little shared cultural  history view crises and crisis response.