Cultural Differences in Crisis Communications

Jerry Hendin

Like my partners Linden and Barbara, I recently attended and made a presentation at an IATA crisis communications seminar, this one in Miami. Like Linden and Barbara, mine also touched on cultural differences and how they can play out in an incident or accident, particularly when it happens outside an airline’s home country.

Many of the recent accidents I researched suffered from the inability of the airline to understand the various and different factors—from time and distance to regulatory to government to media to language/grammar to infrastructural issues—and to react to them. And of course, there are cultural issues…and nothing is quite so cultural as life and death. As an aside, but a relevant one, I teach non-native English speakers one day a week. In my last class we were talking about the importance of numbers and colors and one student from China explained that men in his country never wore green; when I asked why, he said it meant that his wife/girlfriend was seeing/dating another man. Who would have known? The short answer is, not knowing that could get in the way of communications.

It is that same sensitivity that would have prevented an American airlines from passing out white carnations—a symbol of death in some countries—from making a cultural faux pas.That is why I believe that to be properly prepared in a crisis demands that every node in an airline’s network has to be trained on a regular basis. That not only includes country and station managers and public relations agencies but partner agencies (including the airport) as well. I understand that airlines have different policies on who can communicate with whom during a crisis, but, after the initial few days or weeks of an accident and people from headquarters may have gone home, it is your country and station managers and public relations agencies—who know the regulatory environment, the media and the culture--who will have to continue the important job of rebuilding your local relationships and your reputation.