October 2016
By Gary Muddyman

Image:© Kenishirotie/istockphoto.com

Gary Muddyman is the Founder and CEO of Conversis, a translation and localisation agency based in Oxford, regular advisor to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages, a non-executive director for Wembley to Soweto, a member of the Advisory Board for Translators without Borders and a member of the executive Committee of The Rosetta Foundation.


Mistranslations and cultural faux pas can damage brand reputation

The way brands prepare for and respond to an international crisis has a huge impact on their reputation. A new report highlights the importance of considering the linguistic and cultural background of stakeholders.

With the increasing influence of social media, just one negative comment from a major influencer can spark an international crisis for global organizations. Social media has added an overwhelming complexity to crisis management, with multiple channels, user messaging and real-time delivery making the job far more difficult.

Integrating social media into a crisis communications response is a must, not necessarily to directly communicate with everyone you’re connected to, but to provide resources and accessibility to the journalists and key influencers to propagate your message, and to all stakeholders that need a platform to find relevant and real-time information from the source.

The digital age has fundamentally changed the way communications professionals have to manage crisis communications. In a new report titled The importance of understanding language and culture when managing an international crisis, translation and localization provider Conversis gives an insight into how organizations are approaching the linguistic challenge these changes present.

Social media is now an integral part of our personal and business lives. Having billions of potential “citizen journalists” around the world means that previously carefully crafted strategies can be compromised minutes after the event, and in multiple languages. Traditional crisis communications planning and translation work practices only partly meet this challenge.

Localizing the crisis response

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and that is why constantly monitoring the news, online and offline and in all appropriate languages, is crucial.

In fact, the lack of monitoring in relevant languages is just one of several surprising results highlighted in the Conversis report. For example, 15 percent of UK respondents with responsibility for international crisis communications stated that they only monitor the news and/or social media in English. This begs the question whether they would even know if a crisis was unfolding in a particular territory, even if it was trending on their social media monitoring tool of choice.

When a crisis does strike, speed in responding is vital, but even more importantly, the content needs to be factual and empathetic. What might seem perfectly appropriate and assertive in one culture can be considered offensive and condescending in another. So simply translating your holding statement might prove to be a mistake.

Regionalizing your content in a way that is culturally appropriate can really make the difference to your response. For example, during the infamous BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill crisis, the former chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, following a meeting with US President Barack Obama, said "We care about the small people", using what he believed to be the correct translation of his native Swedish phrase, "den lilla människan", which actually means "the common person". While this might just be a figure of speech in Swedish, it came across as highly patronizing in English.

Figure 1: How quickly do you provide a first response holding statement in local languages in the case of a crisis situation?


A lack of language and cultural skills

30.7 percent of respondents to the Conversis survey also said that a lack of language skills among their team had resulted in the wrong message being sent, with 20 percent saying the same thing had happened due to a lack of cultural skills. Just over a quarter (25.9 percent) stated a lack of language skills had also resulted in them not being able to respond to an issue in a timely manner, with 22 percent blaming a lack of cultural skills within the team. 13.2 percent (mounting to 19.8 percent in the US) even admitted to the language skill shortage leading to a deterioration in their relationship with end clients, with 12.9 percent of those based in the US claiming this last issue had happened because of the lack of cultural skills, compared to just 2.9 percent of those in the UK.

In the general chaos that is unavoidable when a crisis hits, you have to be able to rely on your crisis communications plan, which should act as a guiding light. A tactful, pre-orchestrated and rehearsed plan will serve as a pivotal guide when the corporate PR team gathers in the company’s "war room". Having that first statement ready for release, with well-structured scenarios, a relevant media list and a coordinated team ready to march, will save precious time. If the crisis did not surge in your local market, then linguistic resources such as translators, interpreters or language service providers are key in successfully sending the right message across to your target audience. A localized first statement should be immediately available as a part of your "emergency kit". It should take into account not only the primary language in the geographic location of the crisis, but also the primary language of the stakeholders. Due to language migration, these don’t always coincide.

US executives are slightly more confident that they can respond in a timely manner across all markets in the right language, with 48.5 percent of them strongly agreeing with that statement compared to 40 percent of those from the UK. Yet, those based in the US appeared to have far more translation to cope with – more than twice the number of US communications executives (53.5 percent) have to translate their campaigns into 11-20 languages compared to those in the UK (25 percent).

Francis Ingham, Chief Executive of the International Communications Consultants Organization and Director General, UK & MENA Public Relations Consultants Association, who wrote the foreword to the report, said: "The findings are a wakeup call to the [PR] industry on both sides of the Atlantic. Too many people think that, because English is our first language, we have it covered and there isn’t a need for planning, resources or trying to get inside the mind set of a different culture and the language of the people we are doing business with. This sometimes leads to us being a little bit arrogant." 

Speaking the language of stakeholders

With growing globalization and language migration, corporations have become increasingly vulnerable when it comes to sending the right message across to all the markets they operate in. It is vital, from both an internal and external communications perspective, to control your corporate message in all the required languages, especially when a crisis hits. And keep in mind that sometimes the native language of the locale might not be the main language of your stakeholders.

As an example, in December of 2002, a severe ice storm crippled North Carolina, particularly Mecklenburg County. Massive power outages that lasted more than five days in some areas resulted in dangerous living conditions for city and county residents. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Emergency Management Team immediately began coordinating emergency response agencies and was successfully responding to life-threatening events during this crisis. However, language and cultural barriers resulted in many immigrant communities suffering a disproportionate number of health-related illnesses associated with the ice storm. The leading cause of illness was carbon monoxide poisoning. There were approximately 100 carbon monoxide poisonings throughout Mecklenburg County, and over half of them involved the Hispanic community.

While 99 percent of senior PR executives with responsibility for international crisis communications stated that they are confident that their work will take into account cultural sensitivities, their teams must better understand who their target audiences are, the languages they speak and the cultural nuances that need to be considered when communicating with them.