After the Uvalde school shootings, several people said publicly that [statements of] “thoughts and prayers are not enough.” They were right. Unfortunately, we are desensitized to these expressions as empathy-and-compassion statements have become commoditized. As a result, they have lost their power to ease the emotional pain that accompanies crises.
I’ve reviewed hundreds of corporate statements issued for every manner of issue and crisis. The language has become what I would characterize as “textbook”—consistent, acceptable to attorneys—and wholly inadequate. The phrases lack emotion and they have been used so much as to be rendered pointless. It is time to rethink how we approach these statements.
Emotions are raw in a crisis, and even well-meaning but standard statements can be misinterpreted by victims and other stakeholders. We don’t want to create additional issues by failing to give these communications the attention they deserve.
Help Your Leaders with Their Message
First, let’s not confuse the apology statement with the empathy statement. We may not always need to apologize, but heartfelt statements of empathy and compassion are nearly always appropriate. That is, if they are genuine expressions of people, and not corporations.
Let me explain. Studies have shown that sincere apologies can foster forgiveness by focusing on the importance of the relationship. The same can be said of the empathy-and-compassion statement. Rather than relying on boilerplate language, though, let’s make a commitment to acknowledging human emotion in a crisis and working to create genuine human connection.
These kinds of statements don’t come naturally to most leaders. We’ve been taught that emotional expressions are unprofessional. That may be true in some circumstances. But in a crisis, being perceived as callous is even worse.
How can we help leaders say the right things? Start with asking the right questions. First, sincere questions should be asked of those impacted by the situation. We must spend time listening to them and understanding their concerns.
Putting our journalist hats on, we then need to ask our leaders how they feel at hearing the concerns of those affected. We need to ask what they want to say to those who have been harmed and those who are hurting. Then, we need to craft messages that are grounded in the organization’s core values. We should recommend corrective actions and make statements that align with the organization’s most fundamental beliefs.
Importantly, we must continue to listen to stakeholder feedback, both internal and external, as the situation unfolds and even as it begins to resolve. We must communicate consistently and regularly as new information becomes available. When there is no recent news to share, we can talk about process—the decisions we’re making and the actions we’re taking to resolve the situation.
These kinds of communications help to reassure stakeholders that we take the situation seriously and that we are committed to seeing it through to its conclusion. They build trust, foster positive relationships and help everyone involved to heal and move on.
Deb Hileman, SCMP, is president and CEO, Institute for Crisis Management