The empathy imperative in crisis communications

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Two significant case studies in crisis communication dominated headlines (which can be a pretty good indicator of a crisis) during the last week.
First, the Pope is being accused of knowing about moves to cover up child sex abusers when he was a senior church leader in Germany.
In Australia, Qantas airlines has had a series of minor safety scares including one which saw sparks shower an A380 when the plane’s tyres ruptured on landing in Sydney.
In both cases, there were apologies of sorts, and the organisations seemed to react in a way that might fit many communication models for handling a crisis.

But sometimes ‘sorry’ is not enough. 

The most common theories on effective communication strategy for organisations when it all hits the fan begin with first understanding the crisis, then expressing regret to affected stakeholders, and then making amends for the behaviour or changing the operations that led to the crisis. Fair enough.
But I argue that there’s an imperative for empathy that should act as the final element to the crisis communications strategy. Empathy is that final element that tells the stakeholders the apology will lead to new process to reduce the chances the crisis will continue or repeat.

The Pope.

Take the Catholic Church as an example. The Pope to his credit has already apologised for the sins of priests across the world who abused people, most often young people, in their care. Few can know what motivated this apology but it must be presumed the Pontiff is genuinely sorry the terrible crimes happened.
But the empathy imperative demands that the communication message address the question ‘what do  stakeholders really want to hear beyond the word sorry?’
In the case of the Catholic sex abuse case, many victims want to hear the church acknowledge that lives have been destroyed and people’s faith in the church, shattered.
The empathy imperative demands answers to other questions such as how did the church let some of these abuse cases go on for so long and why, in so many cases, were the priests protected.
The Church, in my opinion, has never done this effectively. And they are really big questions that go to the heart of the Catholic belief in celibacy for priests and the infallibility of senior church leaders.

Recent safety scares for Qantas provide another test of the empathy imperative.

On Wednesday night an A380 Airbus with some 200 passengers on board touched down in Sydney after an incident-free flight from Singapore. On the ground, two tyres ruptured sending a shower of sparks across the underbelly of the plane.
Many passengers on board heard the bang, and as many watched the sparks fly from the in flight entertainment system which showed a live camera of the landing.
Sydney’s Channel Seven had mobile phone vision shot by passengers on the plane which showed the horrible orange glow as the giant came to a stop.
Qantas’s response was text book– a spokeswoman was at the airport to answer media questions, and set the narrative that this was a technical incident not a safety scare.
Qantas also insisted that staff will always put safety above schedules every time. A great message.
It was also claimed that the tyres which shredded on the A380 were two of 20 which also meant there was little risk to passenger safety.
The problem? Try telling that to the people on the plane who saw the sparks fly!
Click here to see it on Fox News.
The empathy imperative demands that organisations responding to a crisis ask what it is that stakeholders want to hear.
Qantas was right to call the fiery landing a ‘technical incident’ if it was advised that passengers were in no danger but it also needed to say it risked losing the confidence of the travelling public when sparks fly.
The last piece of the communication message could have been something like this: ‘We know that this landing looked like a safety failure on our part and we acknowledge that some customers were alarmed by the landing on Wednesday night.
‘we’re going to do all that we can to make sure our customers can feel safe to fly with us– because they are.’
Some kind of response along those lines suggests the company’s not happy with the status quo and plans to make changes.
The empathy imperative is a suggestion in strategy that might trigger debate and challenge.
Some communications specialists suggest the crisis should be down-played where ever possible. But doesn’t this leave doubt to linger in the minds of stakeholders?
When do you think it does or doesn’t apply in crisis communication strategy?
As always, I’d love your feedback.

Photo credit: sam_herd flickr

9 comments

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