Off the Map: When things go wrong

Imagine finding yourself in a large meeting room with a great, round table in its midst, and sitting across from you are five men, three from the local government and two from a key media outlet (the building for which is the location of your meeting). If the room had windows, you might be able to tell that you are in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, but in this case the only potential hints are the Arabic language signs on the walls and three of the men across from you are dressed in their traditional thawb (robes) and keffiyeh (head scarves).

On each side of you is a representative from your company: the company that didn’t fix an audio file in a product that originated from the Islamic Qur’an, and that offended the government you’re now facing, in whose country you’re now sitting. You know why you’re here — to essentially explain where your company went wrong in its actions and to make an apology, but the thought keeps crossing your mind: what will the implications be to you personally if the apology isn’t enough?

Once the conversation commences, you sit silently as the senior government official launches into a monologue about why his government doesn’t dislike your country and actually praises your people for their kindness and generosity. But then his tone shifts in a different direction and he starts reciting a number of reasons why your government’s foreign policy is dangerous, flawed and suspicious. After that, he starts with a long list of very pointed questions directed at your company, such as:

Why did your company open its first Middle East subsidiary office in Israel and not an Arab country?

Why did your company release product X in 1998 in Hebrew before Arabic?

Why doesn’t your company recognize “Palestine” in your official country list that appears in all products?

With each question, the local company representatives on each side of you are frantically whispering in your ears to not respond to the question, just ignore it, you’re only here to talk about the one product issue! And on the questions go, until he finally asks about the specific product that brought you here. You take a sip of water, followed by a deep breath, glance down at your carefully vetted notes, and begin.

You may be wondering if such a scenario is probable or even possible. However, I can attest from direct experience that not only is it possible, it happened. And this wasn’t the only time I found myself in front of government officials having to help clarify where the company I represented made a wrong turn in their decision making.

The process of content adaptation for cultures beyond the content’s original context is a challenging task, not only from the perspective of language localization, but for the deeper level changes that may be necessary from the process of culturalization. The reality that we all face, no matter how proficient we are or how well-honed our expertise, is that we are not omniscient. Nor do we have accurate prescience to anticipate every possible reaction and every potential outcome. As a result, inevitably, a mistake may occur in publicly-released content and we must be prepared to manage the consequences.

First and foremost, it’s critical to avoid panic, because this leads to ineffective decision-making, which may make the situation even worse. Far too often, companies will receive a message from a local government or angered consumers and they launch into a frantic “damage control” mode of trying to appease the complainants at all costs in order to minimize potential damage from the press, damage to government relations and of course, a loss of potential sales. It’s natural to be alarmed and stressed by feedback rooted in deep cultural and geopolitical issues, but it’s critical to approach them with the same rationality as you would any other complaint, such as a broken link in a website’s user interface. I’ve seen far too many companies respond in a knee-jerk fashion, quickly implementing whatever fix is being demanded of them, only to find that this new fix now offends another cultural group or additional target markets in the same region.

The next step that often happens in the face of a content mistake is a desperate desire to find out exactly how the problem happened, otherwise known as the “witch hunt” to discern who did what when and why. But now is not the time for a post mortem. The most important task is to listen to what the complainants are saying and to discern what remediation might look like. What exactly are they concerned about? What changes, if any, are they requesting? What threats, if any, are being leveled at the company (such as boycotts, bans or negative press)? Remember that at this stage you cannot be defensive of your content choices and/or be unyielding to feedback. Whatever your intentions were with the piece of content, your goal is to respond to their perception of your intent. In my experience, 99% of mistakes made in content are the result of ignorance or poor processes — they are rarely intentional. But from the recipient’s perspective, almost 99% of the time the mistake is considered intentional on your part, meaning they believe your content was incorrect for a reason, such as wanting to offend a specific market or cultural group.

Once you determine the specifics around the complaints and have a good idea of what actions are necessary to repair the situation, then it becomes a matter of production schedule and public relations. Can the problem be fixed, and if so, how fast can you fix it, and what will be your public explanation for the problem and the fix? For the sake of long-term goodwill, every attempt should be made to deliver a solution to the affected market. But sometimes it’s just not going to be feasible for various reasons — budget, bandwidth and so on. If you can’t fix the problem, then the difficult decision of withdrawing from that specific market may be necessary to at least minimize the damage.

However the issue is resolved from the production side, fix or no fix, the public messaging around the issue must be honest, direct and specific in terms of remedy. When it comes to geopolitical and cultural content issues, this is not a time for companies to issue non-apologies — the kind of cold corporate statements that convey “We’re sorry you’re offended.” For most of these kinds of issues, it’s necessary to confess the limitations of the company’s knowledge or lack of foresight as diplomatically as possible. The core message should ideally be “We’re sorry, we made a mistake because our process was broken (or we didn’t do sufficient research, or whatever the case may be) and we’re taking steps to fix the issue so this doesn’t happen again.”

Now, as the public relations response implies, some initial post-mortem discussion will have taken place, and assuming the issue is handled well and the fix has been applied (or addressed publicly if that’s not possible), now is the time to thoroughly examine the content development process and understand exactly what went wrong. This is a forensic exercise of talking to people in all points of contact with the content in order to understand what they perceive to be their roles and responsibilities at each stage of the process. As most often happens with geopolitical and cultural types of content, such discussions reveal that no one specifically had been assigned the responsibility for tracking, managing and resolving these specific kinds of issues. And this is why the very top-level two pieces of advice I provide to any company are as follows:

Assign responsibility: ensure that someone has overt and recognized authority to manage culturalization-related issues from day one on the project.

Track the issues: most companies have some kind of bug tracking system to ensure the resolution of found issues. Geopolitical issues are no different — create a specific bug type for them that the responsible individual or team can use to shepherd the issues to resolution before release.

When problems arise from oversight, ineffective process or even just a lack of cultural awareness, they don’t need to become the monumental disaster that many tend to expect. Yes, they are quite serious and need to be addressed with the utmost professionalism, but they also need to be confronted calmly and systematically in order to be resolved in a way that won’t turn the issue into something even more complex and damaging.

Lastly, I want to remark that this column entry marks ten years of contributing to MultiLingual magazine. I deeply appreciate the support of MultiLingual and the editorial staff for allowing me this opportunity. And of course to you the readers, I truly thank you for your tremendous support and positive feedback over the years — I’m so glad to know that many share my enthusiasm for the culturalization topic!