Tip Sheet: How To Identify and Assuage Victims

What is the single most powerful component of bad news? Is it conflict? Is it confrontation? Is it complexity? Or controversy? The crucial ingredient in bad news is the creation of victims and the failure to respond to their concerns - in other words, continued or ongoing victimization. There's lots of "stuff" on television, on the radio, and on the Web, but most is information and filler. The real news is about victims. There are three kinds of victims: 1. People; 2. Animals; and, 3. Living systems (somebody's rainforest, somebody's animal species, somebody's backyard - maybe yours). Fail to understand victims and their emotional state, and you'll fail to fix your bad news. Thus, understanding the characteristics of victimization is essential for any communications professional. *Victimization is self-designating. This means that those who actually become victims choose to act on their circumstances against the perpetrators. *Victimization is self-maintaining, because victims get to remain victims as long as they choose to be, or they feel their victimization continues. No insurance company, attorney, or court of law, for that matter, can set limits on the feelings of victimization. *Victimization is self-terminating. When those who feel victimized choose to move on, it's a decision they make on their own. Studies have actually shown that victims who gather together to share their pain and suffering take far longer to recover and move on than those who recover alone, resolve their issues, and get on with their lives. The vocabulary of victimization is totally recognizable. You can identify a victim by their words: Betrayal; Disbelief; Dread; Fear; Frustration; Powerlessness; Helplessness; and, Hopelessness. Their emotions are incredibly powerful, they feel and talk about their inadequacy, of walking but feeling wounded, of being in agony, and of being alone. Victims suffer from three identifiable conditions: 1. Intellectual deafness. This is due to the constant replaying of their pain and suffering in their minds, and while talking about it at the same time. This condition precludes effective intake of information. 2. 24/7 behavior. Being a victim is an all day, all night, every day, every week situation until the victim begins bringing their emotions under control. 3. How the victim's life is consumed by questions: why me, why now, who chose me, who is responsible, couldn't this have been prevented, why didn't they know it was going to happen, and who's going to pay for my pain, suffering, and loss? You can have what seems to be a wonderful conversation with victims in the morning, yet they hold a press conference blasting and blaming you at 2:30 in the afternoon. They are simply intellectually deaf for the better part of their victim experience. What victims need to begin recovery has been well documented. There are four needs, including a couple of surprises: Validation: First, victims need validation (preferably by the perpetrator) that what they're feeling, experiencing, and suffering is real. Fail to acknowledge and validate these emotions forces the victim to find confirmation elsewhere - a television station, support group, newspaper, plaintiff's attorney, maybe a whole community, or sometimes an entire nation. Visibility: Second, victims need visibility - a platform on which they can describe their pain and warn others about you. Understanding victims means you recognize that this visibility is really about them and their suffering. Help victims talk about their pain and suffering. Help them tell people where the harm came from, and warn others from getting the same pain, even if the injury came from you and your organization. If you fail to do this, victims will find another way to get this job done. Vindication: Third, victims need vindication, actions, and decisions by the perpetrator that prevent additional victimization under the same circumstances. You hear in their language, which is often along the lines of: "I'm not doing this for myself, I'm already suffering," or, "I'm doing this for you, so you won't have to suffer." Apology: Finally, victims need an apology from the perpetrator. Apologies are the atomic energy of empathy. On the one hand, attorneys and managers often advise silence for the perpetrator, but silence is the most toxic of behaviors. It's always toxic to the perpetrator. Apology is a proven litigation reducer and emotion mitigator. Again, you hear it in the victim's language, "I don't want any money from this. I just want to hear them take responsibility for their actions, say they're sorry, help everyone who's afflicted, and make sure it never happens again." It takes two powerful strategies to end an apology crisis. First, stop the production of victims, and then, manage the victim dimension. Doing this will meaningfully reduce or eliminate the perpetrator's visibility and news value. This is also the strategy for behaving appropriately, with empathy and integrity, and rebuilding trust. CONTACT: James E. Lukaszewski is chairman of the Lukaszewski Group. This article is a follow-up to the piece he wrote in the August 27, 2007, issue of PR News entitled "The Power of Apology: Shaping Strategies for Saying 'Sorry'." Lukaszewski can be reached at jel@e911.com.

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