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ABSTRACT: On June 14, 1999, school children in Belgium became ill after drinking Coca-Cola. The Belgian government ordered a recall of all bottles of Coca-Cola and banned the sale of all related Coke products. In a rush to safeguard the health of their publics, the governments of Spain and France banned the sale of Coca-Cola soft drinks. However, other nations near Belgium, including Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, did not ban sales of Coke products.
Why did some nations rush to ban products made by Coca-Cola while other nations waited for more information about the crisis? One answer may be found in an examination of the cultural dynamics of these six nations. The purpose of this article was to explore cultural variability, especially uncertainty avoidance and power distance, and to examine how it affects public response to crisis. An analysis of the national cultures of each of these countries showed that publics who live in nations that are high in uncertainty avoidance and power distance tend to react more strongly, and more quickly, to perceived threats.
Maureen Taylor is assistant professor in the Department of Communication at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ.
Business in the 21st century is rapidly changing. Today, successful organizations must operate in a global marketplace. American companies now have subsidiaries all over the world. Likewise, companies from Europe and Asia have operations in the United States. Globalization means that what happens to an organization in one part of the world will affect the organization in other parts of the world. The implications for public relations are clear: successful organizations must understand the intercultural and international aspects of public relations.
In an attempt to better understand the implications for organization--public relationships, the field of international public relations has become an important research area. Culbertson and Chen brought together 22 chapters that explored public relations development in 14 nations/regions of the world.  VanSlyke Turk and Scanlan edited a volume of 15 different public relations case studies about nations making the transition to democracy.  The enormous growth of scholarship and discussion about international public relations is impressive given that the first articles about international public relations only appeared in print 15 years ago.  The significant research accomplishments that have occurred over the last 15 years now allow for a macro perspective on international public relations. According to Taylor, four major lines of research now delineate the field of international public relations: (1) extensions of Grunig's four models of public relations to international situations, (2) critical exam inations that question the presuppositions that guide American and international public relations theory, (3) discussions of international ethics and pedagogy, and (4) nation- or region-specific research that examines similarities and differences between nations.  All four areas are important to provide a well-rounded picture of global public relations theory and practices.
Globalization creates both opportunities and challenges for public relations practitioners. Opportunities include the potential for public relations practitioners to lead their organizations during times of transition. Because the public relations function creates, changes, and maintains relationships with publics, it can help an organization build new relationships in international environments. But challenges also exist. The ways in which organizations can effectively communicate with international publics are dependent on a variety of cultural and societal forces. These cultural and societal variations will affect the communication between international organizations and the publics in the host nations.
One of the most difficult challenges for public relations in the global marketplace will be in the area of crisis communication. Writing about crisis in the United States, Zoch and Duhe  and Coombs  noted that crises often result from poor organization--public communication, and many case studies support this argument. However, crises are exacerbated when they occur in an international environment. When an organization lacks competence in understanding the cultural norms of host nations, then unfortunate incidents can become enormous crises that damage the relationship between an organization and its publics.
The purpose of this article was to better understand how cultural norms can affect public response to a crisis. This article examined a case study of how one multinational organization, Coca-Cola, communicated to publics during and after an international crisis. The Coca-Cola tainting crisis occurred in Western Europe during the summer of 1999 when school children in Belgium reported feeling ill after drinking Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola's response was to deny responsibility and doubt the claims of additional illnesses. This case study sought to understand why some nations in Western Europe, Belgium, France, and Spain, banned the sale of Coca-Cola and its related products while other Northwestern European nations, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, did not suspend sales of the product. This article shows that although Coca-Cola's crisis communication strategies, based on the cultural norms of an American multinational organization, could meet the needs of Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish publics, these strategies fell short for French, Belgian, and Spanish publics. Why did Coca-Cola's communication efforts fail in half of the nations affected during this crisis? Two cultural variables, uncertainty avoidance and power distance, are important cultural frameworks that help explain the disconnect between Coca-Cola's communication before, during, and after the crisis and the international publics' response to this crisis.
The first section of the article examines the cultural dimensions-- uncertainty avoidance and power distance--that can help us better understand the dynamics of organization--public relationships in international contexts. For Geert Hofstede, a psychologist from the Netherlands, uncertainty avoidance is the way that humans cope with ambiguity.  Power distance explains how members of a culture deal with inequality and conflict. As psychological constructs these variables offer insight into a culture's response to risk and crisis. Uncertainty avoidance and power distance have been studied in public relations; however, they have been examined only in the ways in which they affect practitioners who work in international contexts. An extension of this research applies these dimensions to how international publics perceive and respond to crisis.
To understand how these cultural variables affect Western European attitudes to crisis, the second section analyzes a case study of the Coca-Cola scare in 1999. This section examines cultural variance in six European nations and shows how this variance influenced public response to the Coca-Cola tainting scare.
Coca-Cola's communication strategy, based on American cultural norms rather than the norms of the host nations, failed to meet the needs of its international publics. The article concludes with a discussion of how Coca-Cola is changing its business strategies to better adapt to the …