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How to keep communications human in a crisis

20Jul Posted by Gillian Edwards

One of the most enduring lines from a crisis that I remember for all the wrong reasons, was when the chair of BP stressed that “we care about the small people” during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Referring to the people whose lives and livelihoods on the Gulf Coast had been ruined by the disaster this ‘David and Goliath’ comment added insult to injury.  It was made even worse by the fact it came just days after BP’s CEO had complained that he’d “like his life back” as he was fed up dealing with the disaster. Both comments displayed a complete and utter lack of empathy in the face of one of the biggest corporate failures in history.

Showing empathy is one of the main rules in crisis communications. Anyone who has been through crisis training will have learnt the importance of empathy when responding to a crisis (ask for your money back now if you didn’t). And yet, despite this so many companies seem to spectacularly fail when it comes to showing empathy. Some responses seem so utterly inhuman and robotic that you wonder if anyone with a beating heart was involved in the response at all.

So why is it that companies so frequently fall at the first hurdle and fail to show empathy when managing a crisis?

The fear factor

The biggest obstacles to expressing empathy are often legal concerns. When there are risks of serious charges on the table, such as corporate manslaughter or corporate wrongdoing, it’s no wonder that the CEO will turn to their most senior legal counsel for advice. However, the chief communications person needs to have an equal seat on the crisis management team otherwise the response risks hitting the wrong tone.

An example of this is the statement issued by United Airlines’ CEO following the viral video that showed a passenger being brutally dragged off an overbooked plane. In the statement the CEO referred to the incident as the airline having to “reaccommodate” the passenger. The word was so incongruous with the images that were being shared around the world that the statement invited ridicule and accusations of corporate greed.  The statement certainly reads as though his language was guided by a legal professional rather than by a communications professional. One would hope no communications person watched that video and thought that “reaccommodate” was an appropriate word choice for what happened.

In certain situations, legal teams might have very valid reservations about issuing apologies or prematurely admitting fault for fear of legal liabilities, however, this should never be at the expense of showing empathy or sympathy. A highly functioning crisis management team should have equal representatives from communications, operations and legal in order to make sure that responses protect reputations as much as they do prevent lawsuits.

Staying in tune

There’s also the fact that it's human nature to want to quickly resolve a situation and move on. This may lead to organisations being overly focused on getting things back to “normal”. This can lead to communications being out of step with public perception.

The recent Oxfam crisis showed how a company’s internal perception of a crisis appeared at odds with the public perception. The oddly defensive comments made by the CEO that “it isn’t as if Oxfam has murdered babies” when people were busy cancelling their direct debits, demonstrated a huge gap between how the public was feeling and what was being said internally at the charity. And rightly people who had donated money got angrier.

Keeping in touch with external sentiment is absolutely crucial in a crisis. Monitoring public comments on press articles, social media and gaining regular feedback from customers/stakeholders are all important ways to stay in tune with what people are thinking and make sure that communications reflect the mood of external audiences.

Coping under pressure

As important as textbook theory is, it’s not the same as experience. The speed at which a crisis unfolds can be alarming, ever more so in the world of social media. Things can escalate fast and if the crisis management team is not familiar with the pressure cooker environment of a crisis it can be easy to panic and lose sight of the big picture. Pressure from shareholders, customers, bosses and the media can cause companies to act in haste and without thinking things through carefully. Regularly rehearsing crisis situations using realistic “live” simulations can help crisis management teams understand how to work calmly together, test the balance between legal, operations and communications and train team members to think of the big picture when responding to a crisis situation.

Media trained doesn’t mean crisis trained

Simulations are also essential practice grounds for crisis spokespeople. A crisis media interview requires a very different kind of response to a media interview about company results or a new product, it requires the ability to express emotion and display compassion. A CEO can be media trained without necessarily being crisis trained.

The expression of empathy in a crisis situation should be a natural and logical response.  The reality is that very few organisations express it well without careful planning, it requires the right mix of skills on the crisis management team, well trained spokespeople and a commitment to crisis practice and preparation.

Gillian Edwards
Gillian Edwards

Gillian has over 15 years’ experience working in corporate communications, including six years as a broadcast media spokesperson. Her expertise includes messaging and strategy, campaign planning, integrated communications, spokesperson training and crisis and issues management.

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