Crisis Communications and ‘Official Languages’

posted by Brendan Hodgson

NIU pageI spoke at an IABC event last night on crisis communications and social media, and it prompted an interesting question (particularly given that many of the audience hailed from government organizations): How do you reconcile the importance of timely communications with the need to communicate in both official languages?

The question was posed by a communications advisor at a prominent federal agency. But it’s also a topic that has arisen several times in discussions with clients around the development of their crisis dark sites.

It’s an important question, as strict adherence to “official language” regulations could impact an organization’s ability to respond quickly to an issue.

Ultimately, my position – based on discussions to-date – is that  stakeholders will forgive uni-lingual communication if the effort is focused on pushing out vital information in as timely and transparent a fashion as possible. What they will not forgive is knowing that you intentionally withheld critical information for the sake of political expedience.

Granted, this deviation from “regulation” would tend to apply more to situations such as accidents or disasters whether man-made or natural, and where risk to health and safety requires rapid communication. Whereas, with a crises of confidence where a few hours spent ensuring communication in both official languages is coordinated, timing might be less of an issue. Likewise, this holds true in situations where you’re communicating more than a few lines or paragraphs that could easily be translated within minutes.

But when you look to how Northern Illinois University was, for example, rapidly updating their site as events of the shooting unfolded (see attached image), would anyone have complained if (and were this a Canadian institution obliged to abide by Official Language laws), they had only communicated in one language? 

Naive, perhaps? You tell me.

8 Comments
19

Apr
2008

Peter Smith

The thing is, if the vital info is provided to your stakeholder in a language they can’t understand, how useful is it?

Totally agreed that getting translation *could* slow down your efforts to get the info out – but it doesn’t have to, especially if you keep it short. Each of those really short updates that I can (almost) see in your example can be translated in a matter of minutes.

Maybe the greater threat to the speed with which you can get the info out is the dreaded approval process?

19

Apr
2008

Robin Browne

I agree with Peter. In fact, the more critical the info the more critical it be translated. When there’s a crisis in the area covered by the federal department at which I work, the communications shop’s translators are brought in to work overtime (like everyone else), things are kept short and it’s all translated.

20

Apr
2008

Melanie in Ottawa

It was surprising that a communications advisor at a prominent federal agency would pose such a question.  I say this because a “prominent” federal agency would likely be subject to the government’s communication policy, http://www.tbs-sct.gc.ca/pubs_pol/sipubs/comm/comm_e.asp.

Under Crisis and Emergency Communication (tab 11 under Policy Requirements), this sentence seemed to be the take-home message: “The necessary plans, partnerships, tools and methods must be in place to allow government officials to communicate effectively and efficiently in both official languages during an emergency or a crisis”.  Having worked many years in a central government agency, it confirmed my understanding that translation services are an indispensable cog in the large wheel of government.

That being said, would anyone complain if the University of Ottawa (bilingual institution since the mid-70’s) only communicated information about a large scale 9-1-1 situation in one language?  OH YES.  Carleton University?  No.  

21

Apr
2008

Brendan Hodgson

Hi Peter, glad you jumped in. I don’t think any organization would make the mistake of communicating without considering the ability of their primary audiences to understand what’s being communicated. However, I do believe that the circumstances could be different depending on where you are in Canada, be it Vancouver, Calgary, Gaspe, or St. John’s. Our Ottawa-centric viewpoint often tends to distort the realities that exist in other parts of the country.

On the point of approvals, I agree. This is typically where many of the bottlenecks to effective communication occur, more so in government. And this is perhaps a question that underlied the original post and which feeds into your comment, Robin: that being, to what extent are these organizations prepared to ramp up their communications process (including approvals and translations) to address the new communications realities in which we exist?

To your point, Mel, I would hope that most government organizations are indeed sufficiently well prepared to manage multi-language information flow in times of crisis, and as the current policy stipulates. That said, organizations also need to be cognizant of the risk of adhering, perhaps too closely, to the letter of the law rather than the spirit – particularly during times of uncertainty, misinformation, and rapid information flow. In the court of public opinion, the fact that you stuck to the fine print may mean little or nothing.

My expectation is that, for the vast majority of incidents where federal oversight is required, the responses of most departments and agencies will not be constrained by the existing language policy. However, I do believe the media landscape is sufficiently different from what it was even 5 years ago, that government department’s should be reviewing their processes to ensure they have the flexibility to move at the speed Canadians would now expect.

23

Apr
2008

Mariana Sarceda

Communicating during a crisis should aim at providing information  to stakeholders and the community in general. Therefore, if the stakeholders cannot decode your message simply because it’s written in a language foreign for them, then you are not communicating. You’re just writing a message.

23

Apr
2008

Brendan Hodgson

Hi Mariana, I fully agree with what you say, in principle. However, I would suggest it also depends on a variety of factors – the nature of the incident, where it took place, who is affected by it etc. I believe it will be incumbent upon an organization to have a clear picture of who matters so that their message is understood – it may well be that English and French alone even are not sufficient.

11

Oct
2013

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