Berkelaar Brenda and Dutta Mohan. a Culture-Centered Approach to Crisis Communication | Framing (Social Sciences) | Strategic Management

Culture-Centered Approach to Crisis Communication A Culture-Centered Approach to Crisis Communication Abstract 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.

Culture-Centered Approach to Crisis Communication 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 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

This management focus strictly emphasizes the organizational perspective. The culture-centered approach engages in dialogue with those very marginalized voices that are not only displaced materially but also discursively. crisis stages. We will begin be defining crisis and then review literature related to crisis types. providing a framework for interpreting events and evaluating organizational strategies. With an emphasis on effective crisis communication strategies. 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.Culture-Centered Approach to Crisis Communication responds to this necessity for co-constructing narratives of crises with cultural members. existing approaches to crisis communication erase those opportunities for listening to 4 the stories of crisis-affected people that bring forth the structural inequities and oppressive forces that often underlie crises. located in the realm of the voices of those multiple publics that remain forgotten in the dominant crisis communication literature. interpretations and practices of crisis communication. crisis communication strategies and crisis communication theory. Our emphasis therefore. Given the socially constructed nature of problems and solutions and the expansion of local crisis into global arenas. 2004). especially those members who have traditionally been erased from management-focused crisis communication discourses (Millar & Heath. a culture-centered approach would benefit the study and application of crisis communication. this fundamentally is a resistive act that suggests an epistemic shift in the dominant assumptions. 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. We will follow with an overview of culture in the context of crisis communication and finally propose a culture-centered approach for crisis communication. . is on rewriting the stories of crisis from the perspectives of those communities that experience these crises.

In this sense. (b) emphasizes typically on messages without looking at crisis processes. Crisis management/communication is a corporate strategy for dealing with a major business interpretation” (p. and (d) silences the voices of marginalized communities that are at the heart of crises.Culture-Centered Approach to Crisis Communication elucidating how it might be applied in crisis scenarios. “Crisis interrupts normal business activities. p. (c) ignores social structures underlying crises and therefore does not address structural inequities underlying crises. a crisis is defined from an organizational standpoint. 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. 2004). Our review demonstrates that the dominant approach embodies (a) the managerial bias to crisis response and seeks to assert control on crisis situations. 12). 4). This emphasis on the economic logic that predominates much of the crisis communication literature is also . Dominant Approach to Crisis Communication In this section we review the basic components of the dominant approach to crisis 5 communication. and crisis is framed in terms of the economic costs for the organization (Coombs. 2003. 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. Heath & Millar. 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). 1999. The emphasis here is on business interests. 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). The dominant approach embodies the status quo.

is built on this fundamental logic of managing the crisis and comprises of the four steps of 6 prevention. & Mitroff. and urgency or immediacy (e. 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. Well-prepared organizations know crises are coming. 1990. For instance. 1999). Coombs & Holladay. While unpredictable. Fearn-Banks. Coombs. especially given a crisis with an external locus of cause (Lee. 2005. Crisis management. 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. implemented and evaluated. Mistra. 1993. 1996. 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. Aguilera. Lee. Heath & Millar. 1999).Culture-Centered Approach to Crisis Communication 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. 1999. performance and learning that would minimize organizational loss. Barton. Pearson. 2003. unpredictability or suddenness. 2005). but exactly how and when is not fully known (Coombs. 1999. 1997. therefore. The magnitude and scope of a significant threat delineates crises from problems (Coombs. 1997). 1996. 1999). Crises disrupt routine organizational activities and require the development of alternate strategies to restore the organization to routine performance (Dutta- . 3). crises are not unexpected (Coombs. The literature suggests three common elements in the definition of crises: significant threats. preparation. Lee. Lerbinger. A threat references the actual or potential negative outcomes (Coombs. 2005).g. Clair.

2006). In the dominant literature on crises. 1999). Once again. crises are symbolic and subjective. 2005). the emphasis is on maintaining and managing organizational reputation and restoring the smooth functioning of the organization. Heath & Millar. For . 1967. Failure to respond appropriately in a timely manner escalates the crisis (Sellnow & Ulmer. stakeholders use culturally situated metaphors to make sense of crises (Dutta-Bergman.Culture-Centered Approach to Crisis Communication Bergman & Mattson. the immediacy aspect of a crisis provides a compelling desire to act or respond. not simply objective events that could be defined by managerial frames of economic gain and loss (Coombs. an aspect of crisis that is exacerbated given 7 contemporary communication technologies (Bucher. 2002). From a social constructionist perspective. 2003. 1995). and ultimately a loss in stakeholder support and potential threat of organizational extinction (Coombs. However. which is to say that what might be considered a crisis in one situation may not be considered a crisis in another. 2004b. The dominant organizational agenda dictates the singular framework for discussion of crises. 2004a. Finally. threat or harm to human lives. 1978. 2004a. in the conceptualization of the key elements of the crisis. since social reality is communally constructed through language (Berger & Luckmann. the current literature on the culturally situated nature of communication suggests that culture is an important lens through which crises are defined. i. Searle. Crises therefore disrupt routine procedures in a significantly threatening manner requiring an appropriate and immediate (if also ongoing) response (Dutta-Bergman & Mattson. damage to property and natural environments. Orr. singular definitions and interpretations are imposed on sequences of events based on the dominant organization’s interpretation of crisis. Lee. What is and what is not a crisis is situated within the local context and within the meaning structures invoked in these contexts. Crises may include severe financial loss. Heath. severe reputational damage.e. 1999. 2006). 2004b). 2004).

1996. 1997). Pearson et al. 2003. the formation of the Homeland Security Institute. most working definitions fail to incorporate culture or cultural perspectives as critical to the definition or recognition of a crisis as a crisis (e. Lee. Similarly. What constitutes a crisis varies from culture to culture. and the mobilization of resources around crisis response.Culture-Centered Approach to Crisis Communication example. Fearn-Banks. Crises are therefore a function of narrative: “Telling a story is a culturally typical response to a crisis” (Heath. Heath & Millar.e. While significant threats. 1993. Coombs. however. 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. 2002) even as the majority of other nations rejected that there was truly a crisis that required addressing. Lerbinger.. 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). the Bush Administration spoke of the imminent 8 crisis (i. 1997. . Aguilera. 1999. 1996. Barton. Acknowledging the culturally situated nature of crisis opens us to the possibilities that crisis are located within complexly constituted and continuously contested cultural spaces. 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). 1990. Heath & Millar. 2005. 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. 1999. “the grave and gathering danger”) of the Iraq threat (Bush. Some extant literature allows for an interpretive definition of a crisis (Coombs. 2004b). 2003). immediately following September 11. Coombs & Holladay.g.

industrial accidents.Culture-Centered Approach to Crisis Communication unpredictability. Recently. radioactive leak.g. terrorism.). Once again. 2004b). Coombs. Pearson et al.). deliberate stakeholder deception. challenges or confrontation by discontent stakeholders (e. many scholars offer classification systems that divide crises into broad categories (e. 1992. Heath.g. etc. etc. etc.g.g. product recalls from technological breakdowns. flood. worth noting here is the managerial bias in the definition of crisis as it is articulated within the . malevolence.).g.g. 1995) including: natural disasters or “acts of God” (e.g. Coombs created a master list based on clusters of identifiable types (Coombs. earthquakes. rumors. government penalties. hurricanes. strikes. Marcus & Goodman. those terms themselves are culturally defined (e. etc. Egelhoff & Sen. workplace violence or violence by an employee or former employee. technical breakdowns or technology malfunctions (e.g. linking organization to radical groups or faulty products) (1999). organizational misdeeds or management actions that put stakeholders at risk unnecessarily (e. 1997. & Chandler. industrial accidents or product recalls caused by human error). Types of Crises Given the sheer variety of organizational crises. 1995. Failing to view crises from a 9 culture-centered perspective creates situations where dominant organizations fail to recognize the culturally situated nature of crisis (Dutta-Bergman.g. etc. product tampering.. 1997). software failures. and rumors or false information about the company (e. Hazelton. illegal or immoral management acts. megadamage or an accident that creates significant environmental damage (e. tsunamis. an external actor using extreme tactics to express anger or to force change (e.g. the loss of which could cause a significant threat).). 1999. boycotts. Coombs. human breakdowns (e. What is not valuable to one culture may be particularly valuable to another culture. lawsuits. are important components of crises. 1997. Lerbinger.). oil spills. etc. and urgency.). 1991. Holladay.

Once again. both of which are a function of underlying cultural values. the emphasis on these elements is in terms of the organization. pace. The solvability of a crisis depends on how people define the crisis itself (Coombs. simultaneously ignoring the culturally situated and culturally situated nature of these elements. of these factors are culturally situated. and this is absent in the dominant literature on crisis. specific crises can by typified in terms of their particular magnitude (size of the crisis in terms of numbers of stakeholders affected by it). 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. 1999. therefore. 2003) as well as its impact and magnitude. 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.Culture-Centered Approach to Crisis Communication framework of organizational gain/loss. For example. solvability (ease or difficulty of addressing the crisis). Many. The emphasis. in this sense. where 10 malevolence is defined in terms of extreme tactics used by activist groups to force change [in the organization]. proximity (location relative to key stakeholders). In addition. and pace (the rapidity of the spread of the crisis) (Dutta-Bergman & Mattson. For instance. 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 . 2006). Take for instance the category of malevolence. 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 way things are typically done within organizational boundaries. The emphasis on the criteria outlined above is also reflective of the values that are emphasized within the culture. Heath & Millar. if not all. is on using the knowledge of crisis response to protect the status quo. in an individualistic culture that emphasizes aggressive strategies in dealing with uncertainty.

1999). chronic. 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 . probing and prevention. Mitroff provided a more prescriptive. For instance. Fink’s model highlighted the concept that crises evolve over time (Coombs.Culture-Centered Approach to Crisis Communication lived experience. and the lack of discursive spaces for those voices that are most affected by the crisis. Early models such as Fink’s four-staged model (1986) were primarily descriptive (Coombs. 1999). Crisis Stages Numerous models of crisis communication stages or life cycles exist (Coombs. Worth noting in definition of crisis stages once again is the emphasis on the organization. recovery. Following Fink. The next section will provide an overview of the early crisis stage models and the current dominant three-stage model for crisis stages. preventative. and learning (in Coombs. and cyclical sense of crisis communication with his 5-staged model including: signal detection. 1999). most contemporary theorists and practitioners agree on three basic stages as the basis of the crisis life cycle (Coombs. and resolution stages. the lack of discussion of social structures and the necessity to interrogate these structures. crisis breakout/acute. damage containment. 1999). 1999) in this case modeling crisis communication after medical illness with prodromal. Numerous multi-national organizations have faced or exacerbated crises because their business plans failed to address the unique cultural perspectives and aspect of their 11 “expatriate” branch. and demonstrate the ways in which the articulation of stages is imbued with managerial bias and ignores the culturally constituted nature of crises. 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. While there are many different types of crises.

1999). although some individuals add an additional preliminary step called issues management (Herrero & Pratt. The final stage. 2004. This approach includes three distinct stages for crisis: precrisis. and sharing the information with stakeholders. The very formulation of stages brings forth the bias of the crisis communication literature in establishing and reifying the status quo. the variety. the emphasis is on the successful emergence of the organization from the crisis experience. 1999). Coombs. In addition. 2006). and unpredictability (Coombs. crisis. 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. Once again. organizational reputation is restored and the successful organization continues to maintain its operation. or postcrisis stage involves evaluation processes. 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. A culture-centered approach would expand the normal “to do” list to account for and appreciate culture as a force shaping . Crisis communication in the crisis stage involves gathering information. 1999). The crisis stage – where the crisis event actually occurs – is the most difficult stage because of the immediacy. Organizational actions during this stage are critical to establishing the organization’s ability to emerge successfully from the crisis (Dutta-Bergman & Mattson. framing the information. appropriate follow-up procedures and commendations.Culture-Centered Approach to Crisis Communication critical in the face of a crisis. the urgency. and postcrisis. Currently most researchers and practitioners use three-stage approach for crisis 12 management. the articulation of the stages of crisis doesn’t take into account the interactions between culture and structure in the realm of crises. in part because it subsumes other models (Coombs.

Strategies can be segmented in terms of audience. resolution. during Hurricane Katrina. and timing. more specifically. and the ultimate goal is to create messages and place them in appropriate channels so that the crisis may be thwarted or remedied. 2006). particular strategies are selected to enable strategic goal achievement. that is the values of their particular culture(s) are incorporated as standards for success. evaluations must be informed by the culture with context-sensitive evaluation materials that are meaningful to the stakeholders involved (Dutta & Basnyat. At the postcrisis stage. For example. Similarly. the success of crisis such as hurricane Katrina ought to be defined in terms of sustainable structural changes. source. evacuation plans were provided that did not take into account the socioeconomic status of significant segments of the New Orleans population. Strategic communication includes the choice and delivery of particular communication components as a means of accomplishing communication objectives. emergence. Crisis Communication Strategies Within each of the stages. Listening to the voices of the local communities would have created a dialogic entry point for addressing the structures surrounding the crisis. once again reflecting the emphasis on organizational management and the focus on messages as opposed to structurally-based communicative processes that often underlie crises. In focusing on messages that would regain . maintaining the reputation of the organization in the realm of the crisis (Dutta-Bergman & Mattson. Many of the residents did not have cars and so were unable to leave. Pre-crisis preparation that fails to take into account cultural and structural issues associated with stakeholders involved will be inadequate. message.Culture-Centered Approach to Crisis Communication 13 crisis preparation. and evaluation. 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. channel. 2006) so that the values of the stakeholders themselves.

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. and market analysts(2004). evasion of responsibility. . 2006). For instance. the underlying structural processes remain unanswered. including those used in crisis communication. accident. In particular. For example. they fail to account for additional audience groups that may be affected by a particular crisis (Dutta-Bergman & Mattson. and good intentions (2004). 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. provocation. communication scholars have identified five key rhetorical crisis response strategies: denial. In contrast. According to Benoit. While Borda and Mackey-Kallis identify four primary audiences during crises (employees. 2006).Culture-Centered Approach to Crisis Communication 14 organizational reputation. can be divided broadly into rhetorical and informational strategies. Culture also matters when choosing message strategies. the media. Message strategies. 2006). politicians. in the realm of crisis response strategies in response to Hurricane Katrina. 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. Rhetorical strategies tend to frame the situation whereas informational strategies determine content choice (Dutta-Bergman & Mattson.

2004). crisis communication strategies might prove inadequate in marginalized sociocultural settings. it becomes important to use a culture-centered approach in the selection of both rhetorical and informational strategies. Different communication channels reach different stakeholder groups at different levels of reach. Given that different cultures interpret content and meaning differently. In evaluating 15 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. readable. and relevant (Coombs. 1995. 2003. i. Dutta-Bergman. and “where”. “when”. Without appreciating the communication structures of a particular culture. which are used by interested parties to define and judge it” (Heath & Millar. 17). Dutta-Bergman. Also important is the coordination across channels and audiences with the goal of sending a unified message (Dutta-Bergman & Mattson. 1999. including the communication of the “who”. 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. 2006). 2003. accurate. 2003). particularly their culture. Finally a timely response.Culture-Centered Approach to Crisis Communication information strategies focus on the content within the crisis response messages. in a relatively immediate manner to key stakeholders demonstrates organizational control over the situation (Borda & Mackey-Kallis. Information must be complete. The nature of the audiences. 2001). Sellnow & Seeger. “what”. a particular communication channel might better reach one particular stakeholder group over another. p.e. “how”. novel. This . recent. Heath and Milller go further arguing that “crisis response requires rhetorically tailored statements that satisfactorily address the narratives surrounding the crisis. and to emphasize the culturally constructed interpretations of messages. This is particularly critical when we consider the underserved populations that are often the worst hit by a crisis. 1992. 2006).

Culture-Centered Approach to Crisis Communication continued emphasis on creating the appropriate message misses out on the communicative processes within which crises are constituted. evaluating. and developing crisis communication strategies. many are Western organizations. predominantly American organizations. A popular format for applying. cultural perspectives are almost completely absent from practice and theorizing related to crisis communication. As we see from each of the previous sections. Jack-in-the-Box contaminated beef. Herrero & Pratt. shifting from the organizational focus to a focus on the affected communities provides entry . Common case references include: the Intel Pentium chip defect. General Motors side-impact crash. and the USAir crashes (e. given the usage of Westcentric crisis frameworks on analyzing crises. the Firestone tire recall. the McDonald’s hot coffee incident. Fearn-Banks. most case studies continue to reference Western organizations. Given that culture is transformative and constitutive. even if they operate in nonWestern countries.K. Organizational case studies continue to provide significant information related to crisis communication (Bechler. Contradictory meanings may co-exist. product liability lawsuit and the Union Carbide Bhopal incident are referenced. Cultural perspectives are virtually non-existent within formal case studies with global context limited to sporadic descriptions of Western forays into non-Western cultures. While occasional non-American case studies. 2004) but fail to appreciate the cultural assumptions that underlie the 16 crisis situation and the crisis response. the goal of crisis communication ought to include a focus on developing an understanding of the complexity of meanings as they are continuously negotiated. 1996). also the basic assumptions underlying these reports are West-centric. including the Greek Aegean Sea tanker spill. the Showa Denko K. 1996.g. and these tensions ought to provide entry points for understanding the experiences of those who are impacted by crises.

the aim should be to focus on meaning through dialogue (Dutta-Bergman. and agency (Dutta-Bergman. 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. 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. culture-centered communication ought to build on the opportunities for participatory dialogue with marginalized communities that are often further marginalized through the crisis. structure and agency within which crises are constituted through dialogues with cultural communities. Engaging with cultural communities through dialogues provide entry points for interrogating unhealthy structures.Culture-Centered Approach to Crisis Communication points for dialogue with community members through which alternative problem articulations are foregrounded (Dutta-Bergman. Beyond simply 17 looking at mechanical definitions of two-way communication. 2004b). Rather than imposing a dominant world-view. organizational practices and normative influences that create conditions at the margins through crises (Dutta-Bergman. 2004b). 2004b). structure. . The culture-centered approach addresses these gaps in the dominant crisis communication literature by discursively exploring the linkages among culture. Culture-Centered Approach to Communication The culture-centered approach to communication suggests that communication phenomena are constituted at the intersections of culture. crisis communications will remain limited to the managerial and Western-centric biases that have been propagated through the dominant literature in crisis communication. 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.

The culture-centered approach draws attention to these structures. In doing so. 2004b. but also brings forth the ways in which structure remains absent in dominant approaches to communication. The emphasis on structures surrounding communication phenomena not only draws attention to the structural interactions within which communication is made possible. culture is influenced by communication. continuously negotiated and co-created through communicative acts. communication is influenced by. influences the structures within which it is constituted. particularly in terms of the structural constraints that limit the possibilities of communication within certain contexts and that determine the trajectory of communication. and in turn. 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. The emphasis is on the contexts within which communication is co-constructed by participants. In emphasizing the structures surrounding communication. on the other hand. Culture here is conceptualized as dynamic and local. the processes and types of communication . it makes apparent the hidden Eurocentric assumptions that drive much of communication theorizing and research. Therefore. whereas on one hand. 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 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. The taken-for-granted assumptions underlying the dominant conceptualizations of communication are questioned in the realm of their cultural positionality.Culture-Centered Approach to Crisis Communication 18 2004a. 2005). According to the approach. Furthermore. communication is inherently culturally situated and is embedded within the contexts in which it is enacted. culture influences communication. For instance.

and crisis response strategies. in the context of Katrina. Agency captures the communicative acts through which individuals and groups participate within social systems. in turn. and the response strategies that are articulated in the face of the crisis. In the next section. Dutta-Bergman (2004a. The very enactment of agency.Culture-Centered Approach to Crisis Communication engaged in by the victims of Katrina were constrained by the structural resources that were 19 available to them. 2005) argues that cultural marginalization is enacted through inaccess to the communicative structures that define the discursive landscape. 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. 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. 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. Inherent in the idea of agency are notions of active meaning making. opens up the space for contextually-situated shifts in the culture. and choosing pathways of action. we apply the culture-centered approach to crisis communication to locate the role of culture in the context of crisis definitions. Applying a culture-centered approach to crisis communication demonstrates the relevance of examining the cultural contexts surrounding the conceptualizations and categorizations of crises. For instance. 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 pathways of action chosen by cultural participants are dependent upon the meanings that participants come to coconstruct. Inherent in the structurally situated nature of communication is the role of human agency in negotiating these structures. and that emphasizing the .

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. Similarly. examined and applied in the field. Context-bound Nature of Response Strategies How a crisis is defined is intrinsically tied to the culture within which it is constituted. However. and the locally situated context that defines it.Culture-Centered Approach to Crisis Communication 20 voices of cultural participants creates discursive openings that challenge the unhealthy structures underlying crises. and draws attention to the ways in which communication processes and strategies might address these structures and seek to transform them. Three specific areas of contribution of the culture-centered approach include the emphasis on local contexts. 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. the culture-centered approach draws attention to the role of the material structures surrounding crisis. Finally. In many instances. Whether an event becomes a crisis or not is profoundly embedded in the meanings associated with the event. consider the case of deaths in hospitals due to medical negligence in rural contexts in India. and the overall meaning structures within which it is embedded. the focus on structures. 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. and the engagement with cultural voices through dialogue. For instance. the meanings of various response strategies are contextually bound and are central to the ways in which crisis response is theorized. 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 . Also.

as the very definition of a crisis in intrinsically tied to how it would be conceptualized and handled. and ought to be attended to when choosing crisis response strategies.Culture-Centered Approach to Crisis Communication is attached to the life of the child). It is critical to take these meanings into account as crisis response strategies are deployed. 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. 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 contextually embedded nature of crisis response strategies draws attention to the temporality of such strategies. The same communicative act takes up different meanings in different contexts. drawing upon different cultural resources. in South Asian contexts where local communities often deal with natural calamities such as the floods in 21 Bangladesh. The focus is on reflexively engaging with local communities. 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. 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. and the aggressive strategies associated with such crises. 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. For instance. and on building relationships that create . manifested in public outrage. 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. Similarly. The meanings associated with the symbols and languages used by an organization during a crisis are contextually situated.

In many instances. or persuade the public to take certain steps. such strategies focus on developing information-based or persuasion-based communication that would prevent the crisis. inform the public about organizational response. Structure and Crisis Most crisis communication strategies are developed with an emphasis on the message that would help resolve the crisis. 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. the absence of material infrastructures go hand in hand with the lack of communicative infrastructures that are vital during crisis response. It is through these dialogues that the localized contexts become presented in discourse. 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. most crisis communication theories. The emphasis is on maintaining the status quo reflected in saving the reputation of the organization which is typically ate stake. For instance. simultaneously maintaining the status quo. create greater awareness about the crisis. Crisis communication scholarship ought to explore the ways in which the inequities in structures may be addressed. and offers an entry point for action. With the predominant emphasis on messages.Culture-Centered Approach to Crisis Communication 22 openings for dialogues. models and applications miss out on the broader infrastructures surrounding crisis and the structural inequities within which crises are constituted. and the ways in which communication infrastructures . In creating a message-based response.

Culture-Centered Approach to Crisis Communication might be taken into account in the theorizing of crisis communication. 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 23 communication. the culture-centered approach creates new avenues for alternative articulations of crisis definitions and crisis response strategies. This would provide an entry point for transformative politics as opposed to dominant crisis communication strategies that seek to protect the status quo. 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. in the case of Katrina. the presence of the voices of the victims of Hurricane Katrina presents an opportunity for engaging with alternative epistemologies for conceptualizing crises. With the emphasis on listening. we rarely hear the voices of the communities that were displaced by the crisis and faced its violence. 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 . 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. Agency and Dialogue The emphasis on agency creates an opening for engaging with local communities and fosters spaces for dialogue. For instance. The presence of marginalized voices in the discursive space offers opportunities for exploring alternative theorizations of crisis communication. For instance.

this essay suggests that a crisis is fundamentally embedded within the culture as its very definition and description draw upon culturally situated meanings. Not only would studies expand the current literature on crisis communication by shedding light on cultural contexts that have hitherto been ignored. 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. 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.Culture-Centered Approach to Crisis Communication toward protecting the organizational reputation. Our review of the dominant crisis communication literature points out that this literature is predominantly built around managerial bias. Conclusion In conclusion. The traditional framework of crisis response strategies gets modified by a communitycentric approach that continually engages in relationship building processes with local 24 communities. Acknowledging these gaps in the mainstream literature. 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 essay draws attention to the role of culture in the realm of crisis communication. ignores the structural roots of crises. the ways in . Through these processes of relationship building. and erases the voices of those communities that are typically impacted by crises. Furthermore. ignores the cultural contexts within which crises are situated. communities are mobilized and resources are identified for addressing the key crises facing the community as conceptualized by community members. but they would also open up avenues for exploring alternative paradigms for situating crisis communication theory.

by drawing attention to the structures underlying the unequal impact of crises in marginalized communities. Finally. Ultimately. calling for the relevance of exploring the ways in which these structures are conceptually absent from dominant articulations of crisis communication. Therefore. the culture-centered 25 approach creates opportunities for co-constructing these communicative processes and strategies in the realm of the local contexts. these voices present opportunities for exploring alternative possibilities for crisis communication theorizing and practice. the culture-centered approach creates openings of transformative politics by engaging with the voices of local communities. .Culture-Centered Approach to Crisis Communication which crisis communication strategies are interpreted by various meaning communities are enmeshed within local cultures in which they are constituted. the culture-centered approach draws attention to the structures within which crises are situated. In addition. the call for engaging with local communities opens up the discursive space to the voices of marginalized communities built upon dialogues with organizations.

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