Posted: October 10, 2014
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Article SummaryOn June 30, 2014, reporter Lilly Chapa emailed me about an article she was writing for Security Management, a monthly industry trade publication, on “taking emotional response into consideration when building a crisis response plan.” Instead of an interview, we agreed that she would email me questions, which she did. I responded on July 5, but promised not to post the Q&A until her article was published. The article ran in the October issue under the title “Homeland Security: An Emotional Response Plan.” It is available in the print edition only, but the Q&A is below. As it turned out, Lilly’s questions got me going on two other topics besides emotional response: the distinctions among pre-crisis, crisis, and post-crisis communication; and the errors organizations most typically make in their crisis response planning. Finally we got to what I thought would be her focus, planning for the likely emotional reactions of victims, bystanders, and emergency responders themselves.

The Role of Emotion in
Crisis Communication

(a July 5, 2014 email responding to questions from Lilly Chapa of Security Management)

Lilly Chapa’s article in the October issue drew from this email but is available
in the print edition only.

Could you give me a quick background of yourself and your work as it relates to disaster management and communications?

For the past 40+ years, I have been a risk communication consultant. The core of my work is the distinction between a risk’s “hazard” (how much harm it’s likely to do) and its “outrage” (how upset it’s likely to make people). Based on this distinction, I categorize risk communication into three tasks:

  • When hazard is high and outrage is low, the task is “precaution advocacy” – alerting insufficiently upset people to serious risks. “Watch out!”
  • When hazard is low and outrage is high, the task is “outrage management” – reassuring excessively upset people about small risks. “Calm down.”
  • When hazard is high and outrage is also high, the task is “crisis communication” – helping appropriately upset people cope with serious risks. “We'll get through this together.”

Disasters, whether natural or industrial, obviously call for crisis communication: helping people bear the disaster, helping them bear how upset it makes them, and helping them make wise rather than unwise decisions about how to cope. I advise my clients on how to communicate with their stakeholders (employees, customers, neighbors, etc.) during a disaster: a nuclear power plant accident, a flood, etc. I also help clients develop crisis communication plans so they are better prepared to communicate during a disaster: oil companies anticipating a possible refinery explosion or pipeline spill, national governments anticipating a possible infectious disease pandemic, etc.

But it’s not quite that simple.

Before a disaster, organizations that are planning how best to cope with the disaster if it happens have many reasons to communicate with people who are not yet especially concerned, far less upset. An essential task at this point is to get people concerned. You want people to become concerned about the possible future crisis so they will be motivated to prepare for that crisis, emotionally as well as logistically. And you want them to become concerned so they will support your own preparedness efforts.

This is pre-crisis communication, and it’s quite different from crisis communication. It’s basically a kind of precaution advocacy. But it’s a unique kind of precaution advocacy, especially because you’re warning people about something that might not happen; your goal of getting them prepared in case it does competes with your goal of keeping your credibility in case it doesn’t. Acknowledging uncertainty is a crucial component of pre-crisis communication. Good pre-crisis communication avoids sounding confident that the crisis is expected by next Tuesday (unless it really is, of course). The key is to focus on how awful it might be if it happens, not on how sure you are that it will.

Some of my clients resist doing pre-crisis communication. They accept the need to prepare to communicate, but not the need to communicate about preparing. Their reluctance to say much about possible future disasters makes the crisis communication task much, much tougher when a disaster actually materializes.

If pre-crisis communication is a kind of precaution advocacy (high hazard, low outrage), post-crisis communication is partly a kind of outrage management (low hazard, high outrage). While a crisis is ongoing, we’re all inevitably upset about what’s happening. But we tend to swallow our outrage at the people in charge, since we’re relying on them to keep us safe. When the crisis ends, that postponed outrage often erupts: “Why didn’t you prevent this? Why didn’t you manage it better? Why didn’t you warn us it might happen?”

So a lot of post-crisis communication aims at addressing and ultimately calming people’s outrage. That doesn’t mean rebutting their unfair criticisms – being proved wrong rarely if ever helps reduce anybody’s outrage. Instead, outrage management calls for listening to people’s complaints, echoing those complaints, acknowledging and apologizing for the ones that have some validity, instituting improvements, and giving credit to your critics for making the improvements happen. I help my clients with post-crisis outrage management as well: the aftermath of a forest fire, a contaminated food recall, a chemical spill, etc.

In sum, pre-crisis communication is largely about getting people more upset about the crisis that might come. Crisis communication is largely about helping people bear how upset they are about the crisis that is happening right now. And post-crisis communication is largely about getting people less upset about how you handled the crisis that’s over. In different ways, all three are about people’s outrage – not just about the hazard.

Are there any issues that are overlooked by employers when they implement crisis response plans and training for their companies or agencies?

Let me strip away the crisis response mistakes companies and agencies make, layer by layer.

Layer one: Many organizations have no crisis response plan at all. Maybe they think it can’t happen to them. Maybe they expect to play it by ear. They face the crisis naked, and it shows.

Layer two: Many organizations have a crisis response plan that’s missing some of the obvious crises it ought to cover. When you ask the top people in companies and agencies what their highest-magnitude and highest-probability crises are, they usually produce a pretty good list. For the most part they know what to worry about. Then you look at their crisis response plans, and they’ve ignored many of the crises on their list.

Layer three: Many organizations have a crisis response plan that covers the right crises, but they didn’t write it. I sometimes get asked to help draft a client’s crisis response plan, as if a plan drafted by an outsider would be of any value. Ask me to critique your plan, sure – but asking any outsider to draft it shows a mistaken understanding of what the plan (and the planning process) is for.

Layer four: Many organizations write their own crisis response plan and it covers the right crises, but they don’t drill on the plan. It just sits on a shelf. Maybe after the crisis strikes they take it down and try to figure out what it’s telling them to do, but that’s way too late. Ninety percent of the value of a crisis response plan comes from the actual process of planning and drilling – from imagining the crisis and thinking together about how your organization will cope, then trying it in a hypothetical scenario, then revising the plan and trying again.

Layer five: Many organizations have a crisis response plan that covers the right crises and they wrote it themselves and drill on it regularly, but it doesn’t say anything about communication. My clients understand that a purely reputational crisis (a controversy rather than a real crisis; in my terms an outrage management task) requires communication. They know to try to manage the outrage if the outrage is the whole problem even if they don’t know how. But they often imagine that if the hazard is serious too, that means they can ignore the outrage – ignore how upset people are – and focus on managing the hazard. So they write detailed hazard response plans with no communication component at all.

Layer six: Many organizations have a crisis response plan that covers the right crises, they wrote it themselves and drill on it regularly, and it includes communication, but the communication component is all about logistics. I have seen plans that focus almost exclusively on who gets a seat on the crisis communication team, how many times a day it meets, even what room it meets in. But they don’t say word one about messaging or what I sometimes call meta-messaging: how reassuring to be, how candid to be, how emotional to be, etc. They set up the crisis communication team but give it absolutely no guidance on how to communicate in a crisis.

Finally comes the seventh and last layer: The crisis response plan actually includes guidance about crisis communication messaging and meta-messaging, but it’s bad guidance.

The single most common error when an organization gets this far is also the single most common error made by managements that are back at layer one, winging it without a plan: They expect panic and focus their communications on “allaying” panic. (“Allay” is a word I rarely see without “panic” following in its wake.) Disaster experts know that in a serious crisis panic is very rare. People often feel panicky in crisis situations, but they control their panic. In the stairwells of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, for example, many people felt panicky. But their behavior was calm, orderly, helpful to others, sometimes even heroic. The panic attacks came later, when the crisis and the need for urgent action were over.

Yet in crisis situations both my government agency clients and my corporate clients often imagine that the public is panicking or about to panic. That justifies in their minds a lot of crisis management decisions that almost invariably backfire, such as declaring martial law, suppressing scary information, punishing people who say scary things publicly, and issuing empty over-reassurances (“the situation is under control” or even “it’s too soon to panic” … as if it will be time to panic soon).

The very essence of crisis communication is talking to people who are upset. Outrage management is about talking to upset people too, but in outrage management they’re mistakenly upset (in your opinion) and your goal is to get them calm again. In crisis communication they’re rightly upset, and your goal should be to help them bear it and help them use their strong feelings to motivate appropriate actions rather than inappropriate ones. Many of the key recommendations link is to a PDF file in crisis communication derive from what we know about how to talk to people who are rightly upset: don’t over-reassure, don’t aim for zero fear, don’t ridicule the public’s emotions, legitimize people’s fears, tolerate early over-reactions, tell people what to expect, offer people things to do, ask more of people, aim for total candor and transparency, etc.

Why is taking the stress response to a crisis (by employees, other managers, bystanders, etc.) into consideration important when creating a protection plan? Do you have any examples that illustrate this?

As I’ve already emphasized, the emotions of people who are affected by a crisis aren’t peripheral. They’re a central part of the crisis. Helping people bear what they’re feeling link is to a PDF file – not telling them to stop feeling it – is a central part of crisis management.

My term-of-art for the emotional aspect of risk is “outrage.” It’s built into my “Risk = Hazard + Outrage” formula and I’m stuck with it now. But because the word suggests anger, especially a kind of justified, righteous anger, it works better to describe how people feel when they’re being mistreated (by a nearby factory that’s pouring pollution into the neighborhood, say) than how they feel when they’re threatened by an actual disaster.

In most crises the dominant component of outrage – the main way people are upset – is likely to be fear. The point my crisis communication clients have the toughest time accepting is that in a crisis fear is a good thing. It motivates action. Look at this chart showing the levels of fear. Fear is in the middle of the chart; it’s the level of emotional arousal that’s most conducive to putting other problems aside and taking action to cope with the crisis. Everything below fear on the chart – even fear’s wimpy cousin concern – is too weak an emotion to motivate sufficient protective action. And everything above fear on the chart – terror, denial, and panic – is too strong an emotion for people to bear, so they may end up doing nothing or doing the wrong thing. (Denial helps explain why panic is rare; when we’re at risk of panicking we tend to trip an emotional circuit breaker and go into denial instead.)

That’s why I keep emphasizing that crisis communication isn’t about reducing people’s fear; it’s about helping them bear their fear and helping them choose appropriate precautions. What level of public fear should be the goal of crisis managers? Panic, denial, and apathy are all undesirable extremes. So is terror; that’s the terrorists’ goal. But if terror is too strong a response, mere interest or concern is too weak. In a crisis, we want people to put their ordinary concerns aside, to be vigilant, to take precautions, to tolerate inconveniences. Fear isn’t the problem in a crisis. It is part of the solution.

But fear isn’t the only emotional response to crisis. Just as important is the empathy/misery/depression complex of emotions. One of the principal reactions to September 11, for example, was a sense of shared misery. In the weeks, months, and years that followed, most Americans didn’t worry all that much about dying in a terrorist attack. They worried about having to watch a succession of terrorist attacks on television. Whether or not life got scarier after 9/11, it certainly got more miserable. To a lesser but significant extent, all calamities provoke misery.

Other emotional reactions to crisis situations include anger, guilt, and hurt. But fear and misery are the biggies.

Your reference to “stress” reminds me of a crisis communication audience that is too often ignored: the emergency responders themselves. Managing a crisis is a stressful thing to do. A few rare individuals enjoy it and flourish in it; they’re (we’re?) adrenalin junkies. But most people who are managing a crisis are managing their first one. They’re extremely stressed. So they’re likely to manage their own wellbeing badly: not taking the time to eat, to rest, to tell a colleague how awful it is, etc. In a crisis, responders have to take care of themselves and each other – and a crisis response plan should include guidance on how to do that.

I should add that crisis managers’ stress is probably one of the main reasons why corporate and government officials so often imagine the public is panicking. It’s a projection of their own panicky feelings – including panicky feelings about mishandling the crisis. “Whatever else I do for the rest of my life, what I do in the next couple of days is going to be the main thing I’m remembered for, the lede paragraph in my obituary someday….” I suspect that crisis managers’ performance anxiety often gets projected into the misperception that the public is panicking.

Part of helping crisis managers manage their own stress is making sure their preparedness efforts aren’t confined to the workplace. Crisis response plans typically go into considerable detail about what crisis managers are supposed to do when the crisis strikes. “If there’s a hurricane, your job is to do X. If there’s a pandemic, your job is to do Y.” Employees are prepared, more or less, for their crisis management jobs. But very few plans tell employees how to prepare their homes and families for the hurricane or the pandemic. Personal preparedness gets short shrift. So when the crisis arrives, doing their assigned jobs competes with trying to cope on the home front.

When protecting home and family competes with an employee’s crisis management job assignment, home and family often win the competition – and the employee doesn’t show up for the job. At the very least, home and family are a distraction, and the employee’s crisis management job performance suffers. Or the employee prioritizes the job, and the abandonment of home and family rankles forever after. (Furthermore, do we really want to follow a crisis leader who hasn’t even checked in with his or her own family to make sure they’re okay?) Good crisis response plans address this issue front-and-center. They urge employees to prepare on the home front as well as in the workplace, and they design crisis management responsibilities to accommodate personal responsibilities as well.

Your reference to bystanders also reminds me that the boundary between people affected by the crisis and people unaffected is more porous than we imagine. There are people who are affected in ways we don’t realize, people who feel affected even though they’re not, people who sensibly worry that the crisis could spread and they could be next, people who want to help, people who are demoralized and depressed by the tragedy elsewhere, etc. These are all legitimate targets of crisis communication – secondary to the actual victims, of course, but still worthy of more attention than they usually get in crisis communication planning.

What specific steps should employers take before, during and after a crisis to manage personnel, not just logistically but mentally and emotionally?

I think I’ve covered this enough already.

Are there any resources available help employers build a well-rounded protection plan?

I’m not a very good bibliographer, and I don’t feel qualified to recommend crisis planning guides.

I will say that while there’s a lot of advice and help available, much of it ignores or nearly ignores the issue you’re focusing on: the emotional side of crisis planning. And I would recommend tossing any “guide” that tries to tell you how to reduce fear and allay panic.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Not that I can think of.

Copyright © 2014 by Peter M. Sandman

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