Affected Parties Want Authenticity, Not Cut-and-Paste Phrases
Responding to a breaking crisis requires speaking from the heart, not a script. That’s why we discourage “holding statements” in crisis communications plans. The only thing worse than a holding statement is a template of “compassion statements” that assist you piece together a crisis response as if you were solving a crossword puzzle.
An online example of a compassion statement matrix includes these choices:
- On behalf of [insert company name] and our more than [insert number] of employees.
- We express/extend/offer our a) deepest sympathy, b) sincerest/heartfelt condolences, c) assistance, d) thoughts and e) overwhelming grief.
- We have let them know that our thoughts are with them as they cope with this _______________.
Crisis response demands something more immediate and authentic. Greeting card phrases work well for birthdays, deaths and anniversaries, but not so much for environmental spills, data thefts and mass shootings. Empathy is important to convey, but it must flow from the heart, not a flowchart of potential phrases.
Futzing over holding statements is misplaced energy in crisis communications preparation. Time is better spent identifying your organization’s potential crisis scenarios and discussing what actions should be taken in each scenario. Effective crisis response centers on meaningful action, not manufactured words.
The purpose of crisis communications plans is to anticipate crisis scenarios to enable a rapid response. The notion behind holding statements is to stall for time before saying or doing anything in response in a crisis situation.
By definition, crisis situations involve chaos and loss of control. It is critical for crisis communicators to respond in ways that convey confidence to victims, affected parties and employees. You may not know all the answers or even the extent of the crisis, but you can respond in ways they evoke confidence, in ways that show you are acting to address the crisis and its aftermath.
People are smart enough to recognize canned statements when they hear them. They don’t want to hear thoughts and prayers; they want evidence of action. The whole point of crisis communication plans is to be ready to spring into action immediately. If your crisis plan is any good, it should give you the basics of who to call and what to do.
Our firm was retained by one of the companies involved in the 1997 collapse of a parking structure under construction at Portland International Airport. We were on the scene on behalf of our out-of-state client shortly after the accident, which resulted in the deaths of three ironworkers. The scene was chaotic. The parking structure was reduced to a photo-magnet pile of concrete and steel rubble. Reporters were pressing for details on how the accident occurred and who was responsible.
At that moment, no one knew how the accident occurred or who was responsible. It was a situation that called for sympathetic statements reflecting the tragedy and pledges to work with authorities to find out the cause of collapse. It also was a time to provide background on the construction project and to describe the investigative process that would ensue.
The whole point of crisis communication plans is to be ready to spring into action immediately. If your crisis plan is any good, it should give you the basics of who to call, what to do and how to protect your reputation through authenticity.
There were multiple spokespeople – for the airport, the general contractor, the unions and the companies who supplied the concrete and steel. We shared a responsibility to send a unified message, even though it was obvious the parties might be in court later arguing over liability. This is the hard work of in-the-moment crisis response. No one representing the parties involved thought of looking at a matrix for what to say. They focused on what needed to be said.
The creator of the compassion statement matrix touted it as a useful way to “customize” remarks to fit with “target audiences”. This is a commendable but off-base objective. Audiences affected by a crisis don’t want customized statements. They expect and deserve as much of the truth as is evident and available when a statement is issued. You can’t find that kind of truth on any chart. Credibility comes from authentic, action-forward crisis response statements. Don’t risk your reputation on anything short of that.