What not to say in a crisis

Crisis communication is often a messy and clumsybusiness.  Providing the public and various stakeholders with information must be balanced with concerns such as not speculating about the facts and avoiding unnecessary legal exposure via a casual remark that might spark litigation.  It’s not an exact science, to be sure. 

One of the many concerns an organization must have in a crisis is the need to express empathy and genuine care for others.  This is especially important when the crisis involves human injuries or deaths.  The CEO or the mayor or whomever is the official in charge needs to seem businesslike and capable of handling the situation but also should not come across as cold, callous or unfeeling. 

Case in point:  San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White in the aftermath of the recent Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco.  “One of our fire apparatus may have come into contact with one of our two victims,” she said in an understatement of monumental proportions. This was an epic euphemism meant to downplay the likelihood that a fire truck actually ran over and killed a teenage Chinese girl who had survived the crash. 

The death of this poor girl is a tragedy.  It is heart-wrenching, shocking and terrifying.  Trying to obfuscate it by using the coldest, most robotic language imaginable is inhuman.  And it makes Hayes-White and the San Francisco Fire Department look awful – aloof, uncaring an incapable of human emotion. 

It’s troubling the way she used the passive voice to skillfully evade any sense that a person – the driver of the fire truck – might have been responsible for running over the victim.  Instead, it appears that the fire truck was operating independently.  A drone fire truck, perhaps?  The reality, of course, is that someone was driving the vehicle. Hayes-White’s statement is an attempt to deflect any focus on the driver.  It won’t work.  News reporters are not so easily thrown off the trail. 

More troubling is the phrase, “may have come into contact,” as if being smashed by a fast-moving, multi-ton firefighting vehicle is akin to being grazed by an errant fly swatter.  That phrase might just win Understatement of the Year honors.  It makes Hayes-White look massively disingenuous. It’s lawyer-speak, intended to reduce legal exposure without a whiff of concern about how it affects the fire department’s image. 

How would I have said it?  “We are still investigating the situation, so we do not yet have all the answers. But I speak for the entire San Francisco Fire Department when I say we are deeply saddened by the deaths of the two girls who lost their lives in this tragedy.  We are actively and thoroughly investigating all facets of our response to the crash, including the potential that one of our vehicles might have hit one of the victims. Once we confirm the facts of what happened, we will fully report our findings.  Until then, we extend our heartfelt sympathy to the families of the two young ladies who died, and our hopes for a full recovery of all those who were injured.”   

 – Eric Whittington