Flipping through the channels on television a few nights ago, I came across a fascinating C-Span program that replayed news footage of recent history's most important events. I found myself hooked for hours, watching the 1994 congressional testimony of seven big tobacco company CEOs. Now infamous, the public statements made by these gentlemen have become synonymous with what not to do in corporate communications and issues management. After all, did anyone really believe nicotine wasn't addictive, as they all claimed under oath?
We have come a long way since 1994. C-suite executives know the crisis and issues management playbook by now, with universal maxims such as "be prepared," "be honest," "stick to the message," "communicate from the top down" and so on. However, many organizations are still woefully underprepared to deal with the new issues we face in American society, such as the boom in the Hispanic population.
The estimated Hispanic population of the United States in 2007 was 45 million, or nearly 16 percent of the total population, making it the nation's largest ethnic minority. Furthermore, the median age for Hispanics in this country is 27.4 years, compared to 36.4 years for the population as a whole. This is too large a demographic for companies to ignore in their crisis communications planning.
How many CEOs are prepared to respond to a crisis that touches this enormous and increasingly powerful audience segment? How many have identified which issues may arise and strategized what response would be appropriate should an incident detrimentally impact the Latino population?
Today, a large number of Hispanics are using every consumer product or service offered in the U.S. Companies as varied as toy manufacturers and airlines have had recent communications challenges, and most of them successfully executed the bare minimum in communicating with Hispanic consumers: translating releases and statements to reach Latino media outlets. However, so much more could have -- and should have -- been done.
In the same way that companies prepare detailed manuals for dealing with Anglo consumers in the event of a crisis or necessity for issues management, so too should some universal rules exist when dealing with the Hispanic consumer. Here are a few suggestions:
1. Remember emotion resonates. Many experts recommend that spokespeople stick to the facts and avoid emotional pontification. Although this rule occasionally makes sense and should be considered, Hispanics are accustomed to more emotion and sentimentality in their communications. Many Latin-American cultures invite a softer, more heartfelt tone of bereavement for whatever issue has arisen. For example, when working to promote its philanthropic activities, Western Union highlighted the actual impact the contributions had on the Mexican recipients, rather than merely focus on the topline dollar amount.
2. Adapt, don't translate. One of the most basic errors a company can make is limiting its Hispanic outreach to direct translations of news releases. So many nuances can easily get lost and lead to potentially disastrous consequences due to the inaccuracy of a literal word-for-word translation. An expert should carefully adapt the messages in the announcement to create a new document that effectively communicates the key message points to a Spanish-speaking audience. The themes should be the same, but the focus may be different.
3. Think new consumer, old-school tactics. While most general market media is technologically savvy and can adapt to the plans of companies to access news, Hispanic media has been a bit slower to catch up. One should not assume that just because a CEO will conduct satellite media interviews from the company headquarters in the Midwest, key Hispanic media will have the capability to participate. Much of the Hispanic media landscape still thrives on a ground-level, person-to-person interaction. Hispanic groups protesting a company's actions, or consumers upset about the functionality of a product, will often lean towards grassroots tactics. In some cases, communicating effectively with Hispanics may require tactics that seem outdated -- such as guerilla street teams and town hall meetings -- yet are totally necessary.
4. Find the Hispanic angle. "While 73 percent of Hispanic immigrants prefer Spanish over English, the number falls to 25 percent of their children and just 1 percent of their grandchildren. However, the increasing preference for English doesn't mean tailored multicultural messages aren't necessary: Third-generation Hispanics, born in the U.S., retain a sense of Hispanic identity and heritage," said Erik Sass in Media Daily News. Hispanic publications often choose to focus on those issues that are relevant in some way to Hispanics. Rather than just translate a general market announcement, it is advisable to find a Hispanic angle and make that the news hook.
5. Respect cultural differences. We know that Hispanics are not all the same, so we need to ensure we communicate differently with each subset of the population. Even those communications practitioners who pride themselves on knowing the importance of the Hispanic market may not be fully cognizant that dialects in Guatemala are entirely different from those in Mexico. It is crucial to navigate these complexities to ensure targeted, tailored outreach to publications with readership from vastly different countries.
In order to sleep well at night, you must prepare for the worst, in any language. Even though crisis is spelled the same in English as in Spanish, the word has different implications and attributes in each culture.
(Mike Valdes-Fauli is managing director of The Jeffrey Group in New York. He can be reached at email@example.com.)