Crisis Communication Begins with Core Principles


It seems the world is in turmoil and each day brings a new horror to the front page. Of interest to our profession is the way each new horror seems to prompt a discussion of communication process and protocol. Comments in PR LinkedIn groups have covered whether Malaysia Airlines is salvageable as a brand; whether our President articulates his position with sufficient forcefulness; whether world leaders are coordinating their messages; and whether corporations initiate outreach with sufficient speed.

In a cold, academic analysis of crisis communication, such subjects may be important. Those of us in the business of advising clients facing difficult circumstances engage on a regular basis in considerations essential to reputation management and repair. The best crisis communicators go further, however, by thinking of the core values and principles that must be foundational to any genuine expression of concern, outrage, sympathy or seriousness. I offer four that I believe are vital:

Basic Decency

The crash site of MH-17 was violated long before international inspectors were given access. Separatists, villagers, and the media were on scene even as the victims remained unrecovered. Journalists reported on the grisly scenes they observed and the reactions of neighbors with scant regard for the impact of such coverage on the victim’s families and the compounding of grief that would result from such gruesome details.

No one will argue that the news is essential especially in a situation in which a crime against humanity has most likely occurred. It is equally valid that we ask how much detail is required for the public to understand the gravity of the situation. Is it not appropriate to consider whether a viewer alert should be provided at the top of the report? Spoiler alerts are commonplace when Olympic results from a faraway time zone are reported. Yet in this case, few if any such alerts were given. The stories opened with gore and spiraled from there.

Common decency would suggest the victims’ families be considered, as well as the possibility that young children may be watching. This would not diminish the news imperative but it would demonstrate a sense of common humanity that would buttress the moral outrage so many tried to express. When one news reporter covering the Dutch Government’s solemn and dignified repatriation of the victims stated “This is the first decent thing that has been done for the victims and their families,” the point could not have been more forcefully made.

True Empathy

In the rush to report the story of MH-17, the news was all that mattered. It was reported with clarity and speed and some reporters went so far as to say words along the lines of “One can only imagine the impact on the victim’s families.” Is it too much to expect that news organizations would indeed do such imagining? Might there have been “A message from management” that articulated the grief and sympathy we all, as humans feel at such tragic and senseless loss of life? Could there have been some airtime devoted to clergy or counselors who could provide a moral perspective on shared grief? Who took a moment, other than the perfunctory and meaningless “in our thoughts and prayers,” to say anything expressing true compassion to those whose loved ones were lost.

At the center of any such tragedy are real people, with families and communities that cared about them. We forget something absolutely essential if we begin with outrage and belligerence and get around only secondarily to empathy. People are in tremendous pain. We must recognize and acknowledge that agony. We must consider how our words might comfort them rather than aggravate their sorrow. Only then can we move to statements of intent, demands for accountability and justice, and assignment of responsibility. None of these mean as much as knowing the world truly and deeply cares. And if we as communicators can do better than “thoughts and prayers” perhaps by referencing actual prayers, we might help stimulate a feeling that our empathy is real.

Moral Courage

We are polarized as a society and our differences confound our ability to speak during a crisis. We worry about perception, consult polls, and eschew political incorrectness. The result is that the words become timid, the sentiments half-hearted.

Leaders should be expected to speak emphatically and establish a moral position for people to adopt. It may not please everyone, but it frames the discussions that follow and provides context for the actions that are taken. Absent moral discipline, our words and actions are only reactions. They do not move us toward a goal or belief that all can ultimately come to support.

Despite the presence of barbarism in the world, all peoples share a love for their children, a desire to see them grow and thrive, and a wish for a peaceful world in which they can live safely. A moral leader who reminds us that we cannot accept a world in which innocents are blown from the sky, school children are abducted, or the children of Israel and Palestine lose their lives to a battle not of their making, does not intensify the rhetoric of anger and hostility. Instead, we should be reminded of our common values and shared dreams. If this means we lay out a position that fails to embrace all the nuances of correctness, so long as the courage of moral conviction is expressed, we all will be better for it.

Principled Leadership

The reaction from some quarters to the horror of MH-17 is a call for equivalent barbarity. Bomb them to the Stone Age. Teach Russia a lesson. Such vitriol is readily available online and on air. But leaders who spoke not only from outrage, but from a position of well-established principles achieved the greatest impact.

We need to know what we stand for. Sometimes, we may need to be reminded of the fundamental beliefs we all hold dear. Regardless of political differences, there is great meaning in who we are. Leaders express our common beliefs and reflect them through action. Had a meeting of Democrats and Republicans been convened to demonstrate shared outrage and articulate a common commitment to life and freedom, no one would have been talking about fundraising trips or court decisions. There was an opportunity to showcase our principles, even while on the road, bringing people together and building consensus on an action plan.

A principled approach to communication is not required only in moments of horror. It is fundamental to the way we conduct ourselves as businesses and people on a daily basis. Even as we consider the tactics, timeliness and tools of communication, we must consider the underlying values or all else is hollow.

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