When a crisis hits, people don’t actually hear the words of reassurance. They listen with their emotions. Health officials have repeatedly explained to the public that you can only become infected with the Ebola virus through direct contact with bodily fluids.
But polls reveal that a majority of Americans fear they can catch the virus through incidental contact and have little confidence in their government’s ability to manage the crisis.
Touch Their Emotions
People don’t hear the facts. Pictures speak louder than words so all they see are Ebola victims on stretchers being wheeled into hospitals by health professionals draped from head to foot in protective gear.
So while facts are important, spokespersons in a crisis – whether it’s the spread of the Ebola virus or responding to an explosion in a company’s factory – need to show empathy and emotion. Spokespersons need to be sympathetic and communicate a consistent message to engender trust.
President Obama claimed Americans shouldn’t worry about Ebola and that the government was prepared. “It’s important for Americans to know the facts,” he said. But that’s not enough because everyone is worried about it and the facts aren’t enough.
As BloombergBusinessweek reported, “Six years in, it’s clear that Obama’s presidency is largely about adhering to intellectual rigor—regardless of the public’s emotional needs.”
In a company crisis, the public face announcing updates can’t morph into spokesperson mode. He has to have a sense of humanity and, while delivering the facts, acknowledge the audience’s fears and make them feel better about the situation. He has to earn the public’s trust.
He’s talking to mothers and fathers who wonder if their loved ones have survived an explosion or a gunman gone wild in the workplace.
What to Say
If you’re a spokesperson and find yourself on the front line, then you need to speak in a calming and authentic manner. Don’t make false promises and say, “Everything will be OK…” when you don’t know that. Instead use words like, “ Here’s what we’re doing…” or “What we can tell you at this time is…”
Let people know that the organization is in full crisis mode and doing everything possible to fix the situation. Acknowledge that there are human beings being affected.
Create a time line of what happened, what’s being done about it, and when you’ll be giving your next update. Don’t be afraid to repeat your message, “To reiterate, this is what we know…” may resonate with those who didn’t hear what you said the first time.
You can’t make the audience feel better about the situation when you seem aloof and removed. You show your empathy and touch their emotions with your facial expressions, tone of voice and body language. That’s what the audience is seeing and feeling.
Remember, you’re speaking to people who have loved ones involved. How you would feel if you had a family member in a similar situation. What would it take to reassure you?
Be prepared when your organization is hit with an instant crisis so you’re not scrambling to formulate a response while the media is knocking at your door.