It’s hard to maintain composure when all hell breaks loose.
That’s why many spokespeople commit communications errors in emergency situations.
Here are three common crisis miscues that PR pros make—and how to avoid them so you respond with poise and patience the next time bad news strikes:
1. Racing to be wrong. “In this 24/7 news cycle, responding to media requests can seem like the most pressing priority,” says Mary Simms, former spokesperson for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
“It’s not. Accuracy and strategy should always take priority,” she says. “This is especially true during tragedies like the Vegas [shootings], where initial casualty, fatality or even evacuation estimates can be miscalculated—even when provided by a verified source.”
For instance, the Las Vegas Police Department released Sunday evening alerts that shared the number of people transported to the hospital, but not how many were injured or in critical condition, as that number was likely to change.
“Don’t be afraid to say, ‘I don’t know,’ either because information is still evolving or because you aren’t the appropriate source,” says Simms.
Rushing to respond can be costly. In 2007, for example, Simms had just joined the EPA shortly after the Cosco Buscan slammed into the Golden Gate Bridge. Coast Guard officials shared early estimates that the oil spill had spewed 200 gallons of fuel. Twelve hours later, it was clear that was a gross underestimate. The 50,000-gallon spill made national news and resulted in lost public trust.
“Resources were also lost because they were re-allocated to responding to criticism from the public, media, Sen. Barbara Boxer and then Mayor Gavin Newsom,” says Simms. “They all expressed grave concern with the initial misinformation shared.”
Register for PR Daily’s Oct. 13 “Crisis Communications Virtual Summit” for more crisis tips from Jim Lukaszewski (America’s Crisis Guru®), Jon Drummond (Discover Financial Services) and Elizabeth Penniman (American Red Cross).
2. Failure to show empathy. “Showing compassion should be among a communicator’s top priorities in a crisis situation,” says crisis expert Jim Lukaszewski. “Timidity, hesitation, confusion and arrogance will only destroy your organizational trust.”
He believes companies should adopt a “lexicon of compassion” and include phrases like the following in alerts, interviews or press releases during any crisis:
alarmed, appalled, ashamed, concerned, disappointed, embarrassed, empathize, humiliated, let you down, mortified, regret, regrettable, sad, saddened, shocked, surprised, sorrowful, sorry, sympathy, sympathetic, tragic, unfortunate, unhappy, unintended, unintentional, unnecessary, unsatisfied
“This is a problem for companies and leaders these days, because we live in a world where we don’t think we should express emotion,” says Lukaszewski, “but nothing could be further from the truth. As a communicator in a crisis, you must provide a constant reiteration of concern and a constant reflection on the potential suffering of people.”
Lukaszewski says empathetic messages—whether on Twitter or in front of a TV camera—should include these key elements:
- Acknowledgement of the circumstance
- Recognition of grief and suffering
- Expression of personal concern and sorrow for people’s suffering
“Don’t try to accomplish too much with your empathetic message,” he adds. “If you want to outline actions that are being taken to alleviate the situation, break that up. Save it for a separate statement.”
3. Over-reliance on Twitter. “The most common criticism of any crisis response is that it didn’t come fast enough,” Lukasewski says. “That can be mitigated by getting an initial response out on a social media platform like Twitter.”
However, don’t rely too heavily on social media in crises. “It’s not the only tool you have,” says Lukaszewski. “Instead, get out in front of a camera, say something longer than a tweet—and don’t be afraid to show emotion.”
He points out that Vice President Hubert Humphrey was once criticized for crying partway through his presentations.
“He responded that, ‘A person without a tear is a person without a heart,'” Lukaszewski says. “Don’t come across as a communicator or spokesperson without a heart.”
Brian Pittman is a Ragan Communications consultant and webinar manager for PR Daily’s PR University. Jim Lukaszewski (America’s Crisis Guru®), Jon Drummond (Discover Financial Services) and Elizabeth Penniman (American Red Cross) will reveal more crisis strategies in PR University’s Oct. 13 virtual summit, “Crisis Communications: Stop Disaster with a Digital-Ready Plan.”