Facts and emotion in crisis communication: A challenge to our traditional approach

About the author

Chris is a lecturer, media trainer, crisis communication consultant and coach. Her in-house roles have included the global position of Director of PR for Barclays. Chris leads the CIPR PR Diploma and Crisis Comms Diplomas. BA Hons, CAM, MCIPR

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash
Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

If I had to sum up in one sentence Andrew Griffin’s excellent presentation that kicked off the event component of the PR Academy’s Crisis Communication Hub last week I would say: how do you resolve a crisis when there is no agreed objective truth?

It may sound a bit philosophical but let’s think about it. Now so many stakeholders (us included?) are trapped in our own echo chambers we can screen out opposing views. But a search for the truth means we all must continually revisit our ideas in the light of new facts and insights. We can’t do that – and neither can our stakeholders – if our minds are closed to those new ideas.

And that is the problem Andrew seemed to me to be highlighting.

As Andrew observed, an issue such as the increasing polarisation of society, which has been exacerbated by social media, is not new to us. Neither is the blurring of lines between fact and opinion and the eroding of trust in traditional figures of authority.  But all have certainly deepened over recent years. These trends require a re-evaluation of our traditional crisis communication response.

With a crisis we focus our communications around getting the truth out there. We try to put the crisis into perspective – it happens one in every million times – or whatever the figure is. We might try to communicate some context, that our record on these issues is a good one. And on a few occasions, we may feel we are able to deny what we or our organisation is being accused of.

All these crisis communication approaches are made difficult if no one can agree on the truth.  As Andrew pointed out phrases such as “My truth” and “Lived experience” were not heard 20 or even 10 years ago. It was quite something to hear even the Queen say recently “Recollections may vary.”

Instead, Andrew suggested we need to work on a much more emotion-led crisis response.  To quote him: “Never see the emotion as ‘wrong’, never see the facts as the silver bullet.”

Never see the emotion as ‘wrong’, never see the facts as the silver bullet.

We are all familiar with the need to show emotion when dealing with a crisis. Remember the five ‘C’s of crisis communication: Concern, Clarity, Control, Confidence, Competence. They begin with the need to show Concern, an empathetic response, but the other ‘C’s are as much about fact. But as Andrew said in his presentation: “The point where an incident/issue becomes a true strategic crisis is often the point when emotion and fact can come into conflict.”

There is a risk that undirected emotion can find our way to our organisations. Making them what Andrew described as a “lightening rod.”  It’s not that difficult to think of recent examples of this happening. Think of the RNLI currently being blamed as providing a “taxi service” for illegal immigration. Or the National Trust with its search for relevance in a modern society being castigated for being too “woke.”

So how do we prepare or perhaps even prevent this happening?

Most importantly there is the need to make sure we always see the crisis through the eyes of as wider group of stakeholders as possible.  As Andrew said: “Always keep your stakeholders in the room with you.”  This may only be metaphorically, but it does require a diversity of thought and certainly guarding against the Groupthink leadership teams can be guilty of when a crisis hits.

We are used to being told to put the victims at the heart of our crisis response. Now there is a need to widen the definition and think of those who might be offended.  Why might they be offended? What is their point of view on our actions?  Andrew suggests using a “red team” approach, perhaps a kind of “devil’s advocate” mindset when we really test the assumptions we have made about the crisis and how it is viewed by wider society.

So, can you prevent emotion overpowering the facts?  Well, you do not have long to do this.  The window is very early on indeed in the crisis when you can strike the right balance and in such a way that you win the status of being the trusted source of information which is so coveted in a crisis situation.

Our crisis response should accept and even embrace the emotion but never at the expense of the facts.  We still need to prove what we are saying whilst maintaining that balance and empathy.  Not easy when we feel under attack.  This is a time too for flexibility and creativity.  In fact, Andrew calls for those “iconic” actions on the part of senior executives that really move the debate on and demonstrate true leadership.

The answer therefore will not be found in a crisis manual. It is more of a mindset. But as crisis communication professionals we can foster this approach by making sure our senior leadership team truly are stakeholder focused. And, of course, carrying out good crisis simulation that enables the team to develop that “muscle memory” of how to really empathise and understand.

The concept of the PR professional as a coach has been around for a little while. When it comes to crisis communication the challenge following this presentation is how to coach our senior leadership teams to show a bit more emotion. That may well be easier with some organisations than for others.

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