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Culture-Centered Approach to Crisis Communication 1

A Culture-Centered Approach to Crisis Communication


In this theoretical essay, we review current approaches to crisis communication and

suggest that these approaches are limited by a managerial bias, do not really address the

structural issues underlying a crisis, and do not provide participatory avenues for the voices of

cultural community members. Applying a culture-centered approach to crisis communication

demonstrates the relevance of examining the cultural contexts surrounding conceptualizations

and categorizations of crises, and response strategies articulated in the face of crisis. The

relevance of the culture-centered approach to crisis communication is embodied in the very

notion that what constitutes a crisis is contextually embodied in the voices of community

members who negotiate the crisis. This paper examines the literature related to crisis definitions,

crisis types, crisis stages, crisis communication strategies and crisis communication theory, and

provides an entry point to this literature by suggesting the relevance of looking at the interactions

among culture, structure and agency.

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An impressive body of work in public relations has historically explored the ways in

which crisis response strategies may be developed strategically and rhetorically by organizations

(Coombs, 1999). This line of scholarship addresses the development of effective crisis responses

that would help an organization successfully deal with its multiple stakeholder groups. With an

emphasis on effective crisis resolution, the central emphasis of the dominant crisis

communication literature is on the development and deployment of strategies that would work

best in protecting organizational interests (Coombs, 1999; Millar & Heath, 2004). This focus on

organizational crisis response is coupled with a growing interest in addressing crisis

communication strategies globally, particularly in the realm of issues such as terrorism,

bioterrorism etc. that have taken a foothold in US policy and public discourses in a post 9-11

world (Greenberg, 2002; Millar & Heath, 2004). The increasingly global nature of crises has

resulted in a shift toward addressing globalization issues in crisis communication, with an

emphasis on being able to communicate effectively across, between, and within cultures in the

realm of issues such as HIV/AIDS, avian flu, bioterrorism, terrorism, tsunamis, etc. that are not

constrained by cultural, political, or geographical boundaries, and threaten the smooth

functioning of local, national and global economies (Greenberg, 2002).

In a globalized world where the local and global exist dialectically, local crises often

become global crisis. When crises involve stakeholders of different cultures “whose expressions,

communications, reactions, and expectations…are disparate to those of the organization, the

organization must deal with both a local crisis and an international crisis” (Lee, 2005). In this

sense, there is a growing acknowledgement that we need to deal with the culturally situated

nature of crises. However, recent reviews of the literature in public relations point out that much

of the discussions of culture in public relations have not really moved beyond a rudimentary call
Culture-Centered Approach to Crisis Communication 3

for the need to address the nature of culture (Pal & Dutta, in press). Current scholarship for

instance has not really picked up on the call issued by Botan and Taylor to theorize about the

culturally situated natured of public relations. Recently, public relations scholars have called for

sophisticated theorizing of culture that is responsive to the shifting and dynamic natures of

cultures, and the culturally constituted nature of public relations activities.

Reflecting the overall biases in the public relations discipline in its limitations in

addressing the cultural complexities that surround public relations efforts, current approaches to

crisis communication do not adequately address globalization or take the resulting cultural issues

into account. To date the vast majority of crisis communication research is based on Western,

and predominantly American (see the edited book by Millar and Heath, 2004 for example),

perspectives and organizations thereby constraining the lens through which scholars and

practitioners understand crises and crisis communication; furthermore, with its emphasis on the

organization and organizational responses, this literature does not really engage with the voices

and experiences of the cultural communities that find themselves in the midst of crisis situations

(Dutta-Bergman, 2004b). With an emphasis on organizational effectiveness, the current crisis

communication literature fails to attend to the ways in which publics respond to crises and enact

their agency in response to these crises, thus failing to address a major realm of communicative

practices constituted around crises. Crises such as 9/11, Katrina, and the Iraq war bring forth the

necessity of looking beyond the organizational necessities to situating and engaging with the

voices of citizens and cultural participants as they negotiate and navigate crises. This is

particularly critical in the real of the already underserved communities that typically continue to

be impacted by crises.

In this essay, we propose that the culture-centered approach to crisis communication

Culture-Centered Approach to Crisis Communication 4

responds to this necessity for co-constructing narratives of crises with cultural members,

especially those members who have traditionally been erased from management-focused crisis

communication discourses (Millar & Heath, 2004). This management focus strictly emphasizes

the organizational perspective, and simultaneously sustains the structural conditions that silence

the voices of the communities that are often situated in the realm of the violence and displaced

experiences brought about by crises. With an emphasis on effective crisis communication

strategies, existing approaches to crisis communication erase those opportunities for listening to

the stories of crisis-affected people that bring forth the structural inequities and oppressive forces

that often underlie crises. The culture-centered approach engages in dialogue with those very

marginalized voices that are not only displaced materially but also discursively; this

fundamentally is a resistive act that suggests an epistemic shift in the dominant assumptions,

interpretations and practices of crisis communication. In other words we propose that cultural

context is intertwined with how crisis are defined and identified and the ways in which these

crises are addressed and negotiated. Given the socially constructed nature of problems and

solutions and the expansion of local crisis into global arenas, a culture-centered approach would

benefit the study and application of crisis communication, providing a framework for

interpreting events and evaluating organizational strategies, located in the realm of the voices of

those multiple publics that remain forgotten in the dominant crisis communication literature. Our

emphasis therefore, is on rewriting the stories of crisis from the perspectives of those

communities that experience these crises. We will begin be defining crisis and then review

literature related to crisis types, crisis stages, crisis communication strategies and crisis

communication theory. We will follow with an overview of culture in the context of crisis

communication and finally propose a culture-centered approach for crisis communication,

Culture-Centered Approach to Crisis Communication 5

elucidating how it might be applied in crisis scenarios.

Dominant Approach to Crisis Communication

In this section we review the basic components of the dominant approach to crisis

communication. The dominant approach embodies the status quo, the existing state of affairs and

is reflective of the currently circulated approaches to crisis communication that occupy much of

the discussions of crisis in the peer-reviewed literature. Our review demonstrates that the

dominant approach embodies (a) the managerial bias to crisis response and seeks to assert

control on crisis situations, (b) emphasizes typically on messages without looking at crisis

processes, (c) ignores social structures underlying crises and therefore does not address structural

inequities underlying crises, and (d) silences the voices of marginalized communities that are at

the heart of crises.

Defining Crisis

A crisis is an untimely but predictable event that has substantial consequences for the

stakeholders and the reputation of the organization involved (Coombs, 1999; Millar & Heath,

2003, p. 12). In this sense, a crisis is defined from an organizational standpoint, and the literature

that builds addresses crisis communication is built upon this fundamental managerial bias (see

for instance the introductory chapter defining crisis communication by Heath & Millar, 2004).

What is at stake in a crisis is organizational reputation and this is embodied in the following

definition of crisis in Heath and Millar (2004), “Crisis interrupts normal business activities.

Crisis management/communication is a corporate strategy for dealing with a major business

interpretation” (p. 4). The emphasis here is on business interests, and crisis is framed in terms of

the economic costs for the organization (Coombs, 1999; Heath & Millar, 2004). This emphasis

on the economic logic that predominates much of the crisis communication literature is also
Culture-Centered Approach to Crisis Communication 6

evident in the following articulation by Coombs (1999) that a crisis is defined in terms of its

“potential to disrupt or affect the entire organization” (pp. 3). Crisis management, therefore, is

built on this fundamental logic of managing the crisis and comprises of the four steps of

prevention, preparation, performance and learning that would minimize organizational loss. This

singular emphasis on organizational management misses out on the experiences of crises as

articulated by the stakeholders who are most at risk because of the crisis. For instance, the

singular emphasis on crisis response of FEMA and the Centers for Disease Control and

Prevention (CDC) in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina misses out on the narratives of loss and

survival as articulated by the people that faced the violence of the crisis. It might be argued that

it is essentially because of this managerial bias that the voices and agendas of the underserved

communities that are typically most affected by the crisis remain beyond the realm of the

dominant discursive spaces where policies are developed and crisis response strategies are

debated, implemented and evaluated.

The literature suggests three common elements in the definition of crises: significant

threats, unpredictability or suddenness, and urgency or immediacy (e.g. Aguilera, 1990; Barton,

1993; Coombs, 1999; Coombs & Holladay, 1996; Fearn-Banks, 1996; Heath & Millar, 2003;

Lee, 2005; Lerbinger, 1997; Pearson, Mistra, Clair, & Mitroff, 1997). While unpredictable, crises

are not unexpected (Coombs, 1999). Well-prepared organizations know crises are coming, but

exactly how and when is not fully known (Coombs, 1999), especially given a crisis with an

external locus of cause (Lee, 2005). A threat references the actual or potential negative outcomes

(Coombs, 1999). The magnitude and scope of a significant threat delineates crises from problems

(Coombs, 1999; Lee, 2005). Crises disrupt routine organizational activities and require the

development of alternate strategies to restore the organization to routine performance (Dutta-

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Bergman & Mattson, 2006). Crises may include severe financial loss, severe reputational

damage, threat or harm to human lives, damage to property and natural environments, and

ultimately a loss in stakeholder support and potential threat of organizational extinction

(Coombs, 1999; Heath & Millar, 2003; Lee, 2005). Finally, the immediacy aspect of a crisis

provides a compelling desire to act or respond, an aspect of crisis that is exacerbated given

contemporary communication technologies (Bucher, 2002). Failure to respond appropriately in a

timely manner escalates the crisis (Sellnow & Ulmer, 2004). Crises therefore disrupt routine

procedures in a significantly threatening manner requiring an appropriate and immediate (if also

ongoing) response (Dutta-Bergman & Mattson, 2006). Once again, in the conceptualization of

the key elements of the crisis, the emphasis is on maintaining and managing organizational

reputation and restoring the smooth functioning of the organization.

In the dominant literature on crises, singular definitions and interpretations are imposed

on sequences of events based on the dominant organization’s interpretation of crisis. The

dominant organizational agenda dictates the singular framework for discussion of crises.

However, the current literature on the culturally situated nature of communication suggests that

culture is an important lens through which crises are defined, i.e. stakeholders use culturally

situated metaphors to make sense of crises (Dutta-Bergman, 2004a, 2004b; Heath, 2004a,

2004b). What is and what is not a crisis is situated within the local context and within the

meaning structures invoked in these contexts. From a social constructionist perspective, since

social reality is communally constructed through language (Berger & Luckmann, 1967; Orr,

1978; Searle, 1995), crises are symbolic and subjective, not simply objective events that could be

defined by managerial frames of economic gain and loss (Coombs, 1999); which is to say that

what might be considered a crisis in one situation may not be considered a crisis in another. For
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example, immediately following September 11, the Bush Administration spoke of the imminent

crisis (i.e. “the grave and gathering danger”) of the Iraq threat (Bush, 2002) even as the majority

of other nations rejected that there was truly a crisis that required addressing. What this

demonstrates is that the very definition of crisis by a dominant stakeholder (Bush administration

in this case) might be contested by other cultural systems and spaces, thus suggesting the

necessity for interrogating the taken-for-granted power structures that are typically mobilized in

defining a crisis and rhetorically framing a crisis to mobilize action. Similarly, the rhetorical

framing of terror in the post 9/11 US was deeply interconnected with the formulation of certain

policies (such as the terrorist act), the formation of the Homeland Security Institute, and the

mobilization of resources around crisis response. Culturally situated meaning frames and the

contested nature of crisis definitions are particularly worth theorizing because of the ways in

which dominant power structures mobilize rhetorically situated definitions of crises to mobilize

action and to generate support for policies (such as the war in Iraq and the formation of the

Homeland Security Institute). Acknowledging the culturally situated nature of crisis opens us to

the possibilities that crisis are located within complexly constituted and continuously contested

cultural spaces.

Crises are therefore a function of narrative: “Telling a story is a culturally typical

response to a crisis” (Heath, 2004b). What constitutes a crisis varies from culture to culture.

Some extant literature allows for an interpretive definition of a crisis (Coombs, 1999; Heath &

Millar, 2003); however, most working definitions fail to incorporate culture or cultural

perspectives as critical to the definition or recognition of a crisis as a crisis (e.g. Aguilera, 1990;

Barton, 1993; Coombs, 1999; Coombs & Holladay, 1996; Fearn-Banks, 1996; Heath & Millar,

2003; Lee, 2005; Lerbinger, 1997; Pearson et al., 1997). While significant threats,
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unpredictability, and urgency, are important components of crises, those terms themselves are

culturally defined (e.g. What is not valuable to one culture may be particularly valuable to

another culture, the loss of which could cause a significant threat). Failing to view crises from a

culture-centered perspective creates situations where dominant organizations fail to recognize the

culturally situated nature of crisis (Dutta-Bergman, 2004b).

Types of Crises

Given the sheer variety of organizational crises, many scholars offer classification

systems that divide crises into broad categories (e.g. Coombs, 1995; Egelhoff & Sen, 1992;

Heath, 1997; Lerbinger, 1997; Marcus & Goodman, 1991; Pearson et al., 1997). Recently,

Coombs created a master list based on clusters of identifiable types (Coombs, 1999; Coombs,

Hazelton, Holladay, & Chandler, 1995) including: natural disasters or “acts of God” (e.g. flood,

hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, etc.); malevolence, an external actor using extreme tactics to

express anger or to force change (e.g. terrorism, rumors, product tampering, etc.); technical

breakdowns or technology malfunctions (e.g. software failures, industrial accidents, product

recalls from technological breakdowns, etc.); human breakdowns (e.g. industrial accidents or

product recalls caused by human error); challenges or confrontation by discontent stakeholders

(e.g. boycotts, strikes, lawsuits, government penalties, etc.); megadamage or an accident that

creates significant environmental damage (e.g. oil spills, radioactive leak, etc.); organizational

misdeeds or management actions that put stakeholders at risk unnecessarily (e.g. illegal or

immoral management acts, deliberate stakeholder deception, etc.); workplace violence or

violence by an employee or former employee; and rumors or false information about the

company (e.g. linking organization to radical groups or faulty products) (1999). Once again,

worth noting here is the managerial bias in the definition of crisis as it is articulated within the
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framework of organizational gain/loss. Take for instance the category of malevolence, where

malevolence is defined in terms of extreme tactics used by activist groups to force change [in the

organization]; in this sense, activism and change are seen as negative threats that seek to disrupt

the status quo and the categorization scheme is equipped to help the organization deal with the

crisis by identifying it appropriately. The emphasis, therefore, is on using the knowledge of crisis

response to protect the status quo, the way things are typically done within organizational

boundaries. Also absent from the dominant categorization of crisis is the acknowledgement of

the structural forces that are often central to experiences of crisis in marginalized communities.

In addition, specific crises can by typified in terms of their particular magnitude (size of

the crisis in terms of numbers of stakeholders affected by it), proximity (location relative to key

stakeholders), solvability (ease or difficulty of addressing the crisis), and pace (the rapidity of the

spread of the crisis) (Dutta-Bergman & Mattson, 2006). Once again, the emphasis on these

elements is in terms of the organization, simultaneously ignoring the culturally situated and

culturally situated nature of these elements. Many, if not all, of these factors are culturally

situated, and this is absent in the dominant literature on crisis. For example, pace, or the speed at

which the crisis spreads is a function of what a particular culture considers to be “fast” since

there is no objective measurement to determine speed of crisis emergence and growth. The

solvability of a crisis depends on how people define the crisis itself (Coombs, 1999; Heath &

Millar, 2003) as well as its impact and magnitude, both of which are a function of underlying

cultural values. The emphasis on the criteria outlined above is also reflective of the values that

are emphasized within the culture. For instance, in an individualistic culture that emphasizes

aggressive strategies in dealing with uncertainty, solvability might be a critical issue that might

be backgrounded in the realm of cultures where uncertainty is accepted and valued as part of the
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lived experience.

The monolithic definition of categories based on Eurocentric assumptions ignores the

contested nature of what constitutes as crisis and the ways in which the crisis might be

approached. Numerous multi-national organizations have faced or exacerbated crises because

their business plans failed to address the unique cultural perspectives and aspect of their

“expatriate” branch. While there are many different types of crises, most contemporary theorists

and practitioners agree on three basic stages as the basis of the crisis life cycle (Coombs, 1999).

The next section will provide an overview of the early crisis stage models and the current

dominant three-stage model for crisis stages, and demonstrate the ways in which the articulation

of stages is imbued with managerial bias and ignores the culturally constituted nature of crises.

Crisis Stages

Numerous models of crisis communication stages or life cycles exist (Coombs, 1999).

Early models such as Fink’s four-staged model (1986) were primarily descriptive (Coombs,

1999) in this case modeling crisis communication after medical illness with prodromal, crisis

breakout/acute, chronic, and resolution stages. Fink’s model highlighted the concept that crises

evolve over time (Coombs, 1999). Following Fink, Mitroff provided a more prescriptive,

preventative, and cyclical sense of crisis communication with his 5-staged model including:

signal detection, probing and prevention, damage containment, recovery, and learning (in

Coombs, 1999). Worth noting in definition of crisis stages once again is the emphasis on the

organization, the lack of discussion of social structures and the necessity to interrogate these

structures, and the lack of discursive spaces for those voices that are most affected by the crisis.

For instance, the completion of the cycle by recovery and learning seeks to maintain the status

quo without creating openings for structural changes that might nevertheless be important and
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critical in the face of a crisis. The very formulation of stages brings forth the bias of the crisis

communication literature in establishing and reifying the status quo.

Currently most researchers and practitioners use three-stage approach for crisis

management, in part because it subsumes other models (Coombs, 1999). This approach includes

three distinct stages for crisis: precrisis, crisis, and postcrisis; although some individuals add an

additional preliminary step called issues management (Herrero & Pratt, 1996) The precrisis stage

is where preparation should and/or does take place with the goal of anticipating and mitigating

potential crises and communicating with key stakeholders about potential crisis preparation

strategies. The crisis stage – where the crisis event actually occurs – is the most difficult stage

because of the immediacy, the urgency, the variety, and unpredictability (Coombs, 1999).

Organizational actions during this stage are critical to establishing the organization’s ability to

emerge successfully from the crisis (Dutta-Bergman & Mattson, 2006). Once again, the

emphasis is on the successful emergence of the organization from the crisis experience;

organizational reputation is restored and the successful organization continues to maintain its

operation. Crisis communication in the crisis stage involves gathering information, framing the

information, and sharing the information with stakeholders. The final stage, or postcrisis stage

involves evaluation processes, appropriate follow-up procedures and commendations, and future

plans, the goals of which are to maintain organizational control and operations without really

interrogating the structures surrounding the crisis (Borda & Mackey-Kallis, 2004; Coombs,


In addition, the articulation of the stages of crisis doesn’t take into account the

interactions between culture and structure in the realm of crises. A culture-centered approach

would expand the normal “to do” list to account for and appreciate culture as a force shaping
Culture-Centered Approach to Crisis Communication 13

crisis preparation, emergence, resolution, and evaluation. Pre-crisis preparation that fails to take

into account cultural and structural issues associated with stakeholders involved will be

inadequate. For example, during Hurricane Katrina, evacuation plans were provided that did not

take into account the socioeconomic status of significant segments of the New Orleans

population. Many of the residents did not have cars and so were unable to leave. Failing to

account for the structurally situated nature of the crisis resulted in recommendations that further

marginalized the communities that were displaced by the hurricane. Listening to the voices of the

local communities would have created a dialogic entry point for addressing the structures

surrounding the crisis. At the postcrisis stage, evaluations must be informed by the culture with

context-sensitive evaluation materials that are meaningful to the stakeholders involved (Dutta &

Basnyat, 2006) so that the values of the stakeholders themselves, that is the values of their

particular culture(s) are incorporated as standards for success. Similarly, the success of crisis

such as hurricane Katrina ought to be defined in terms of sustainable structural changes.

Crisis Communication Strategies

Within each of the stages, particular strategies are selected to enable strategic goal

achievement, once again reflecting the emphasis on organizational management and the focus on

messages as opposed to structurally-based communicative processes that often underlie crises.

Strategic communication includes the choice and delivery of particular communication

components as a means of accomplishing communication objectives, more specifically,

maintaining the reputation of the organization in the realm of the crisis (Dutta-Bergman &

Mattson, 2006). Strategies can be segmented in terms of audience, source, message, channel, and

timing, and the ultimate goal is to create messages and place them in appropriate channels so that

the crisis may be thwarted or remedied. In focusing on messages that would regain
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organizational reputation, the underlying structural processes remain unanswered. For instance,

in the realm of crisis response strategies in response to Hurricane Katrina, the singular emphasis

on the appropriate messages to be sent out shift focus away from the structural inequities and

imbalances that were fundamental to the experiences of the displaced African American

communities from lower SES segments that were the most affected by the crisis. Existing crisis

literature emphasizes the importance of segmenting audiences because different audiences

respond differently to the same situation (Dutta-Bergman & Mattson, 2006). While Borda and

Mackey-Kallis identify four primary audiences during crises (employees, politicians, the media,

and market analysts(2004), they fail to account for additional audience groups that may be

affected by a particular crisis (Dutta-Bergman & Mattson, 2006). In particular, segmentation in

terms of culture is not included even though different cultures within stakeholders groups hold

different values (or value positioning) that influence strategic selection. For example, a strategy

involving dissemination of information via the Internet will fail to reach its intended audience if

the audience belongs to a group lacking computer access and access to the communicative

platforms on which the messages are communicated. The lack of adequate conceptualization of

structures and the focus on messages leave out the questioning of the access to specific

communication infrastructures that are typically taken-for-granted in crisis response.

Culture also matters when choosing message strategies. Message strategies, including

those used in crisis communication, can be divided broadly into rhetorical and informational

strategies. Rhetorical strategies tend to frame the situation whereas informational strategies

determine content choice (Dutta-Bergman & Mattson, 2006). According to Benoit,

communication scholars have identified five key rhetorical crisis response strategies: denial,

evasion of responsibility, provocation, accident, and good intentions (2004). In contrast,

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information strategies focus on the content within the crisis response messages. In evaluating

content communicators must attend to the quality and the quantity of the information as well as

providing adequate information without causing overload (Dutta-Bergman & Mattson, 2006).

Information must be complete, novel, accurate, recent, readable, and relevant (Coombs, 1995,

1999; Dutta-Bergman, 2003). Given that different cultures interpret content and meaning

differently, it becomes important to use a culture-centered approach in the selection of both

rhetorical and informational strategies, and to emphasize the culturally constructed

interpretations of messages.

Different communication channels reach different stakeholder groups at different levels

of reach, i.e. a particular communication channel might better reach one particular stakeholder

group over another. Without appreciating the communication structures of a particular culture,

crisis communication strategies might prove inadequate in marginalized sociocultural settings.

This is particularly critical when we consider the underserved populations that are often the

worst hit by a crisis. The nature of the audiences, particularly their culture, as well as the internal

and external factors of the crisis and the channels available must all factor into the optimal

choice of communication channels (Dougherty, 1992; Dutta-Bergman, 2003; Sellnow & Seeger,

2001). Also important is the coordination across channels and audiences with the goal of sending

a unified message (Dutta-Bergman & Mattson, 2006). Finally a timely response, including the

communication of the “who”, “what”, “when”, “how”, and “where”, in a relatively immediate

manner to key stakeholders demonstrates organizational control over the situation (Borda &

Mackey-Kallis, 2004). Heath and Milller go further arguing that “crisis response requires

rhetorically tailored statements that satisfactorily address the narratives surrounding the crisis,

which are used by interested parties to define and judge it” (Heath & Millar, 2003, p. 17). This
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continued emphasis on creating the appropriate message misses out on the communicative

processes within which crises are constituted.

Organizational case studies continue to provide significant information related to crisis

communication (Bechler, 2004) but fail to appreciate the cultural assumptions that underlie the

crisis situation and the crisis response. A popular format for applying, evaluating, and developing

crisis communication strategies, most case studies continue to reference Western organizations,

predominantly American organizations. Common case references include: the Intel Pentium

chip defect, the McDonald’s hot coffee incident, Jack-in-the-Box contaminated beef, General

Motors side-impact crash, the Firestone tire recall, and the USAir crashes (e.g. Fearn-Banks,

1996; Herrero & Pratt, 1996). While occasional non-American case studies, including the Greek

Aegean Sea tanker spill, the Showa Denko K.K. product liability lawsuit and the Union Carbide

Bhopal incident are referenced, many are Western organizations, even if they operate in non-

Western countries. Cultural perspectives are virtually non-existent within formal case studies

with global context limited to sporadic descriptions of Western forays into non-Western cultures;

also the basic assumptions underlying these reports are West-centric, given the usage of West-

centric crisis frameworks on analyzing crises. As we see from each of the previous sections,

cultural perspectives are almost completely absent from practice and theorizing related to crisis


Given that culture is transformative and constitutive, the goal of crisis communication

ought to include a focus on developing an understanding of the complexity of meanings as they

are continuously negotiated. Contradictory meanings may co-exist, and these tensions ought to

provide entry points for understanding the experiences of those who are impacted by crises;

shifting from the organizational focus to a focus on the affected communities provides entry
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points for dialogue with community members through which alternative problem articulations

are foregrounded (Dutta-Bergman, 2004b). New opportunities are created for listening to the

voices of communities that typically are further marginalized by crises and spaces for

transformative politics are opened up. Rather than imposing a dominant world-view, the aim

should be to focus on meaning through dialogue (Dutta-Bergman, 2004b). Beyond simply

looking at mechanical definitions of two-way communication, culture-centered communication

ought to build on the opportunities for participatory dialogue with marginalized communities that

are often further marginalized through the crisis. Engaging with cultural communities through

dialogues provide entry points for interrogating unhealthy structures, organizational practices

and normative influences that create conditions at the margins through crises (Dutta-Bergman,

2004b). If we fail to appreciate the lived expectations of community members and fail to work

with them to solve the problems important to them in the face of crises, crisis communications

will remain limited to the managerial and Western-centric biases that have been propagated

through the dominant literature in crisis communication. Not listening to the stories of structural

violence brought on by crises closes discursive possibilities and erases experiences of

marginalized communities that are often deeply intertwined with the crisis narratives we

construct in the dominant literature. The culture-centered approach addresses these gaps in the

dominant crisis communication literature by discursively exploring the linkages among culture,

structure and agency within which crises are constituted through dialogues with cultural


Culture-Centered Approach to Communication

The culture-centered approach to communication suggests that communication

phenomena are constituted at the intersections of culture, structure, and agency (Dutta-Bergman,
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2004a, 2004b, 2005). According to the approach, communication is inherently culturally situated

and is embedded within the contexts in which it is enacted. Culture here is conceptualized as

dynamic and local, continuously negotiated and co-created through communicative acts.

Therefore, whereas on one hand, culture influences communication, on the other hand, culture is

influenced by communication. The emphasis is on the contexts within which communication is

co-constructed by participants. Dutta-Bergman (2004b) suggested that the culture-centered

approach provides an entry point for interrogating the dominant discourses in communication for

the ways in which culture is absent from these discourses. The taken-for-granted assumptions

underlying the dominant conceptualizations of communication are questioned in the realm of

their cultural positionality; the culture-centered approach brings forth the culturally located

nature of the theories and applications in communications which are supposedly based on

appeals to universal reason. In doing so, it makes apparent the hidden Eurocentric assumptions

that drive much of communication theorizing and research.

Furthermore, communication is influenced by, and in turn, influences the structures

within which it is constituted. The culture-centered approach draws attention to these structures,

particularly in terms of the structural constraints that limit the possibilities of communication

within certain contexts and that determine the trajectory of communication. The emphasis on

structures surrounding communication phenomena not only draws attention to the structural

interactions within which communication is made possible, but also brings forth the ways in

which structure remains absent in dominant approaches to communication. In emphasizing the

structures surrounding communication, the culture-centered approach conceptualizes the role of

structures in defining the terrain of communicative processes and the nature of messages that are

constructed by cultural members. For instance, the processes and types of communication
Culture-Centered Approach to Crisis Communication 19

engaged in by the victims of Katrina were constrained by the structural resources that were

available to them. Dutta-Bergman (2004a, 2005) argues that cultural marginalization is enacted

through inaccess to the communicative structures that define the discursive landscape.

Theorizing about the role of structures opens up spaces for macro-level changes in

communicative structures within social systems such that these structures become accessible to

the marginalized sectors of society.

Inherent in the structurally situated nature of communication is the role of human agency

in negotiating these structures. Agency captures the communicative acts through which

individuals and groups participate within social systems. Inherent in the idea of agency are

notions of active meaning making, and choosing pathways of action. The pathways of action

chosen by cultural participants are dependent upon the meanings that participants come to co-

construct. For instance, in the context of Katrina, the concept of agency focuses on the ways in

which displaced community members in New Orleans made sense of the limiting structures and

negotiated pathways of action. Agency is constituted in the realm of culture as culture offers the

template for the constitution of meanings and the choice of communicative acts. The very

enactment of agency, in turn, opens up the space for contextually-situated shifts in the culture. In

the next section, we apply the culture-centered approach to crisis communication to locate the

role of culture in the context of crisis definitions, and crisis response strategies.

Applying a culture-centered approach to crisis communication demonstrates the

relevance of examining the cultural contexts surrounding the conceptualizations and

categorizations of crises, and the response strategies that are articulated in the face of the crisis.

The relevance of the culture-centered approach to crisis communication is embodied in the very

notion that what constitutes a crisis varies from culture to culture, and that emphasizing the
Culture-Centered Approach to Crisis Communication 20

voices of cultural participants creates discursive openings that challenge the unhealthy structures

underlying crises. It is not enough to simply tailor a message to the predominant characteristics

of the culture as the very definition of what might or might not be seen as a crisis is dependent

upon the meaning communities within which the crisis is constituted. Similarly, the meanings of

various response strategies are contextually bound and are central to the ways in which crisis

response is theorized, examined and applied in the field. Also, the culture-centered approach

draws attention to the role of the material structures surrounding crisis, and draws attention to the

ways in which communication processes and strategies might address these structures and seek

to transform them. Finally, the emphasis on agency suggests that crisis communication

scholarship focus on dialogues with various stakeholder communities and shifts attention away

from the dominant focus on strategic communication based on a managerial bias to looking at

the voices of crisis-affected communities that are typically silenced in the discursive space.

Three specific areas of contribution of the culture-centered approach include the emphasis on

local contexts, the focus on structures, and the engagement with cultural voices through dialogue.

Context-bound Nature of Response Strategies

How a crisis is defined is intrinsically tied to the culture within which it is constituted,

and the locally situated context that defines it. Whether an event becomes a crisis or not is

profoundly embedded in the meanings associated with the event, and the overall meaning

structures within which it is embedded. For instance, consider the case of deaths in hospitals due

to medical negligence in rural contexts in India. In many instances, these deaths do not take on

the meanings associated with a crisis as community members often have to deal with the

violence associated with deep-seated structural inequities. However, a crisis is defined and

triggered by a specific event such as the death of a child at a hospital (a great deal of significance
Culture-Centered Approach to Crisis Communication 21

is attached to the life of the child), manifested in public outrage. Similarly, in South Asian

contexts where local communities often deal with natural calamities such as the floods in

Bangladesh, events are culturally constructed as reflective of natural processes without taking up

the intensity or attention as witnessed in the case of similar crises in the US or the UK, and the

aggressive strategies associated with such crises. The SARS crisis in China demonstrated the role

of culture in public definitions of the crisis and the ways in which the crisis was represented. It is

critical to take these meanings into account as crisis response strategies are deployed, as the very

definition of a crisis in intrinsically tied to how it would be conceptualized and handled.

How an organization responds to a crisis and the ways in which the publics respond to the

crisis are deeply connected with the contextually-located nature of communication. The same

communicative act takes up different meanings in different contexts, drawing upon different

cultural resources. For instance, the communicative act of being strategically ambiguous about a

crisis might indeed be meaningful in a certain cultural community whereas open and direct

communication might be more desirable in another cultural community. The ways in which

discourse is publicly constructed around a crisis is intertwined with culture such that the

vocabulary of the crisis varies widely with different cultural contexts. The meanings associated

with the symbols and languages used by an organization during a crisis are contextually situated,

and ought to be attended to when choosing crisis response strategies.

The contextually embedded nature of crisis response strategies draws attention to the

temporality of such strategies, and suggests the necessity of moving away from top-down models

of communication that emphasize the deployment of messages based on some universal criteria

to more listening-based approaches that are built upon dialogues with community members. The

focus is on reflexively engaging with local communities, and on building relationships that create
Culture-Centered Approach to Crisis Communication 22

openings for dialogues. It is through these dialogues that the localized contexts become presented

in discourse, and offers an entry point for action.

Structure and Crisis

Most crisis communication strategies are developed with an emphasis on the message

that would help resolve the crisis. In creating a message-based response, such strategies focus on

developing information-based or persuasion-based communication that would prevent the crisis,

create greater awareness about the crisis, inform the public about organizational response, or

persuade the public to take certain steps, simultaneously maintaining the status quo. The

emphasis is on maintaining the status quo reflected in saving the reputation of the organization

which is typically ate stake.

With the predominant emphasis on messages, most crisis communication theories,

models and applications miss out on the broader infrastructures surrounding crisis and the

structural inequities within which crises are constituted. For instance, what are the material

infrastructures that constitute crises and what are the ways of addressing inequities in such

infrastructures? In the realm of the high impact of natural disasters on underserved communities,

structure-centered crisis communication might focus on examining and addressing the structural

inequities in communities that lead to greater crisis impact on underserved communities. This

was particularly evident in New Orleans in the realm of Katrina. The lack of an adequate

infrastructure in the context of the crisis brought about large scale impacts on already

marginalized communities in New Orleans. In many instances, the absence of material

infrastructures go hand in hand with the lack of communicative infrastructures that are vital

during crisis response. Crisis communication scholarship ought to explore the ways in which the

inequities in structures may be addressed, and the ways in which communication infrastructures
Culture-Centered Approach to Crisis Communication 23

might be taken into account in the theorizing of crisis communication. This would provide an

entry point for transformative politics as opposed to dominant crisis communication strategies

that seek to protect the status quo.

Agency and Dialogue

The emphasis on agency creates an opening for engaging with local communities and

fosters spaces for dialogue. This calls for a shift from the traditional models of crisis that are

based on information delivery and persuasion to more of a listening-based approach to crisis

communication. Instead of focusing crisis communication strategies that are typically top-down,

the culture-centered approach foregrounds the development of community-based communication

processes that are built upon the notion of listening to communities that have typically been

erased from the discursive space. For instance, in the case of Katrina, we rarely hear the voices

of the communities that were displaced by the crisis and faced its violence.

With the emphasis on listening, the culture-centered approach creates new avenues for

alternative articulations of crisis definitions and crisis response strategies. The focus is on the

voices of the community members and marginalized cultural groups that are affected by the

crisis rather than on sending out messages to address the crisis from the vantage point of

managerial interests. The presence of marginalized voices in the discursive space offers

opportunities for exploring alternative theorizations of crisis communication. For instance, the

presence of the voices of the victims of Hurricane Katrina presents an opportunity for engaging

with alternative epistemologies for conceptualizing crises. It is through these presences of

various stakeholder groups that have hitherto been erased from the discursive space that the

culture-centered approach resists the epistemic violence of dominant discourses of crisis

communication that are typically based on information and persuasion-based strategies directed
Culture-Centered Approach to Crisis Communication 24

toward protecting the organizational reputation.

The traditional framework of crisis response strategies gets modified by a community-

centric approach that continually engages in relationship building processes with local

communities. Through these processes of relationship building, communities are mobilized and

resources are identified for addressing the key crises facing the community as conceptualized by

community members. The active involvement of community members in crisis definition and in

subsequent crisis response ensures that the needs of the community drive the ways in which the

crisis is handled. This shift from a more traditional top-down approach to crisis communication

to a more listening-based approach to crisis communication is central to the currency and

relevance of the crisis communication literature. In order to be meaningful, crisis communication

scholarship needs to empirically examine the ways in which locally situated communities enact

their agency and mobilize their resources in response to crises. Not only would studies expand

the current literature on crisis communication by shedding light on cultural contexts that have

hitherto been ignored, but they would also open up avenues for exploring alternative paradigms

for situating crisis communication theory.


In conclusion, this essay draws attention to the role of culture in the realm of crisis

communication. Our review of the dominant crisis communication literature points out that this

literature is predominantly built around managerial bias, ignores the cultural contexts within

which crises are situated, ignores the structural roots of crises, and erases the voices of those

communities that are typically impacted by crises. Acknowledging these gaps in the mainstream

literature, this essay suggests that a crisis is fundamentally embedded within the culture as its

very definition and description draw upon culturally situated meanings. Furthermore, the ways in
Culture-Centered Approach to Crisis Communication 25

which crisis communication strategies are interpreted by various meaning communities are

enmeshed within local cultures in which they are constituted. Therefore, the culture-centered

approach creates opportunities for co-constructing these communicative processes and strategies

in the realm of the local contexts.

In addition, the culture-centered approach draws attention to the structures within which

crises are situated, calling for the relevance of exploring the ways in which these structures are

conceptually absent from dominant articulations of crisis communication. Finally, the call for

engaging with local communities opens up the discursive space to the voices of marginalized

communities built upon dialogues with organizations; these voices present opportunities for

exploring alternative possibilities for crisis communication theorizing and practice. Ultimately,

by drawing attention to the structures underlying the unequal impact of crises in marginalized

communities, the culture-centered approach creates openings of transformative politics by

engaging with the voices of local communities.


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