As part of excellent public relations practice, being culturally sensitive is an important facet of building and managing positive relations with both current and potential stakeholders.
By Thandolwenkosi Nkomo
That means at every turn, communication practitioners should ensure that their corporate communications are sensitive to the social norms and values of their stakeholders.
On numerous occasions, Zimbabwean organisations have been accused of being culturally insensitive, especially in their use of language and symbols in corporate communications.
In 2011, six billboards along Luveve Road in Bulawayo had to be pulled down following spelling errors of Ndebele names.
In October 2014 an anti-domestic violence billboard in Beitbridge sparked an outcry over IsiNdebele grammatical and spelling errors. Later that year, in December, fast-food outlet Chicken Slice faced a social media backlash following an isiNdebele advert with grammatical and spelling errors and a culturally inaccurate representation of relations between a mother and her son-in-law.
Econet, Telecel, Delta Beverages, NetOne, EcoCash, Zimbabwe People’s Front (ZimPF), National Building Society, Premier Optometry Services, Zimpapers and the Rural Electrification Agency are some of the other organisations that have been caught on the wrong side of isiNdebele spelling errors.
The general outcry over these spelling errors has been that these errors bordered on deliberately distorting the Ndebele language and culture, leading to a perception that these organisations were culturally insensitive to the Ndebele-speaking people.
While the apologies and corrective actions taken by these organisations in the wake of these blunders were commendable, what is clear is that cultural sensitivity remains a chronic challenge for many organisations in Zimbabwe.
A key variable in overcoming such a challenge lies in the transformation of organisational and communicative worldviews from being ethnocentric to being ethnorelative.
In the enthnocentric worldview, individuals in an organisation view their own culture as central to reality. In his postulation of this worldview, Milton Bennet gives three stages in this process — denial, defense and minimisation.
At the denial stage, individuals are oblivious or ignorant of cultural differences and perceive their own culture as the only “true” culture.
At the defense stage, individuals are aware of cultural differences, but stereotype other cultures while perceiving their own culture as superior.
At the minimisation stage, individuals begin to acknowledge cultural differences but underrate the importance of such differences, usually dismissing protests against such as not that important.
It is the latter that remains a challenge for many organisations operating in multi-cultural settings. Due to the ethnocentric position of members of these organisations — their leaders and communication managers — cultural differences in the market are ignored, under-rated or minimised, resulting in culturally insensitive communication and practices.
At a basic level, this is seen in internal communication practices such as the use of unofficial languages in the day-to-day conduct of business transactions. For example, the decision to use a particular language at the expense of other languages spoken by the various members of the organisation regardless of the fact that the official language in the organisation is English shows an element of cultural insensitivity.
By choosing to dominate a formal working environment with the use of an “unofficial” language that may not be understood or prefered by all employees creates an exclusionary atmosphere where some members of the organisation may feel undermined or excluded. In the long run, this negatively impacts on employee engagement and commitment.
On the external communications level, this may be seen when members of an organisation choose to impose their own language on external stakeholders without bearing in mind that such stakeholders may not be conversant in that language. This is often seen when for example, a receptionist greets a visitor in a language other than English on the assumption that the visitor understands that particular language.
A better approach would be for the organisational representative to first ascertain the preferred language of the visitor and then use that language to communicate. By initiating culturally-sensitive communication policies, organisations thus avoid forcing their own values and norms on stakeholders perceived to be from minority cultures, or through organisational practices that underrate the importance of other people’s cultures.
To achieve this, organisations need to become ethnorelative. This involves three stages — acceptance, adaptation and integration. At the acceptance stage, individuals in an organisation begin to accept and understand that cultural differences are an inherent part of society and the marketplace.
At the adaptation stage, individuals begin to think and behave with both their culture and other people’s cultures in mind. At the intergration stage, individuals within organisations intentionally make efforts to become fully competent in operating in multi-cultural settings.
In the practical sense, this means organisations and individuals in organisations must realise that the world is a multi-cultural environment with people of various languages, values and norms.
By having such an attitude, organisations will put in place policies to ensure that communications between internal and external stakeholders build bridges between cultural positions.
A critical task in achieving this paradigm shift is cultural sensitivity training. Such training initiatives will enable individuals in organisations to become cognitively aware of cultural differences and know how to effectively operate within multi-cultural situations.
Through such training, individuals and organisations will be able to not only connect with local stakeholders in various cultural contexts, but they will be able to better position themselves to operate in the global village, which is in itself a multinational and multicultural domain.
Needless to say, such training must begin within the dominant coalition of organisations as it is at this level that the organisational and communication culture is developed.
Training of CEOs and other members of the top management team will ensure that cultural sensitivity flows to the rest of the organisation as these leaders can, by exhibiting cultural sensitivity, set the pace for a culturally sensitive organisational culture.
Developing culturally sensitive worldviews is critical if corporate communicators and public relations practitioners in Zimbabwe are to contribute to a united nation of people who recognise and appreciate cultural differences as strengths to be exploited for the good of the country.
l Thandolwenkosi Nkomo is a public relations researcher and strategist working as a lecturer in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at the National University of Science and Technology. He is currently pursuing doctoral studies with the University of South Africa. He can be contacted at email@example.com