Why Corporate Culture Matters to Communicators


An organization’s culture shapes its internal and external communications, whether purposefully or unintentionally. A recent Council of PR Firms Harvard Leadership Program session explored this topic as it relates to India’s famed Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, and the impact of its organizational culture on employees during the unprecedented terror attacks of October 2008.

The Taj was one of four high-profile sites targeted by Islamist terrorists across Mumbai that fall evening. Attackers stormed the hotel, shooting at random, exploding bombs, setting off fires and taking hostages. The invasion would last for nearly three days and take the lives of 31 people, including 11 hotel staff.

But the incredible part of the story is that not one Taj employee abandoned the hotel or its guests. Many workers had opportunities to save themselves early on, but instead they formed human shields to protect the guests during evacuation attempts.  Taj employees had no training for a terrorist attack; they simply reacted as products of the extreme customer-centric culture in which they were trained.

The ensuing communications to guests, staff and the world followed a similar plan. The hotel – a values-driven operation stressing an organizational culture in which employees are willing and rewarded for doing almost anything for guests – quickly rebuilt and reopened. And it was booked solid from the very first night. Heads of State from across the world made a point to stay at the Taj.

Throughout the crisis, the values that the organization had deeply ingrained in its staff took hold, allowing Taj to naturally communicate more about its culture and commitment to its guests than any advertising campaign could have done. These values were not set up expressly for publicity, but they ended up defining the organization externally.

The Taj discussion led us to wonder: How significant is the power of a company’s culture on communications strategies and execution?

This isn’t just an academic question; it’s in the news cycle right now.

The recent Penn State sex abuse scandal demonstrates how another type of culture – one of secrecy — can decimate an institution. PSU’s football program long enjoyed widespread praise and idolization by students. However, molestation charges against former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky changed all of that; evidence shows some voiced concerns about vulnerability if the allegations leaked, but the culture dictated secrecy as it had in earlier incidents involving team member behavior. The team’s longstanding “good ole’ boy” culture backfired.

Another recent example of corporate culture driving external perceptions is reflected in the professional services space. Last year, Dewey & LeBoeuf was the 11th largest law firm in the country, with a 100-year history. Today, the firm faces bankruptcy court, a range of lawsuits, and a Chairman under investigation by the Manhattan Attorney General.

Recent economic challenges hit many professional service firms, yet few blew up in such dramatic fashion. What led to the largest collapse of a law firm in U.S. history? Was it a lack of governance and trust stemming from the top that in fact created the ultimately dooming fiscal challenges? A lack of internal communication from a dictatorial management system?

Lawyers showed no loyalty towards their former boss or firm, slamming it in the media as they began leaving in droves. And negative rumors, driven from within, superseded any official messaging about the firm staying on solid footing, ultimately helping along its demise. There were problems with the internal culture of the firm that contributed to its sudden downfall. If the culture were right, employees would not have slammed the firm so publicly.

A final example: Earlier this month, corporate culture was blamed for another devastating tragedy when the Japanese Parliament declared that the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis was man-made. Authorities said that the “fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to sticking with the program.” Conformity and collective interests took precedent over independent thinking and strong leadership, and the resulting fallout was disastrous both locally and internationally. A culture based on loyalty to one’s company and government likely made communications work a breeze during minor incidents, but the 2011 disaster showed the weaknesses of that foundation.

A company’s culture can impact the way a crisis is managed internally and viewed externally. As communicators, we need to understand the driving culture of our company’s management and strategy, and see the benefits and potential failings on our communications plans.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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