When There are No Rules: PR Considerations for Mass Tragedies
Human tragedies that involve loss, abuse and threats to public and personal safety are specialized crisis issues that do not come with a handy public relations playbook. The horrific tragedies that have occurred over the last several months, including the Lower Manhattan attack, Las Vegas shooting, Hurricanes Harvey and Irma and decades-deep criminal investigations like the Harvey Weinstein abuse issue are major challenges for communicators, executives and public relations professionals who are charged with delivering the facts and managing an insatiable demand for updates as the news unfolds. There are so many variables, so many delicate points of contact, so many scenarios to suss out. In these situations, communicators and authorities face many unknowns and uncertainties – there’s no choice but to work with the information available to make the best informed decisions possible at that time.
The most crucial communications rule is to show compassion and concern for human life and those personally affected, genuinely, in both content and tone (often, delivery can be more important than content). It is critical to stick to the facts or what is known, avoid speculation and correct misinformation. Over the years, our agency developed a tongue-in-cheek acronym (PANTCHEK) designed to be instantly memorable for its users in handling business and operational crises. However, those rules (as well as any) seem blithe against the magnitude of the Las Vegas tragedy or Puerto Rico’s post-Hurricane devastation. I suspect any “lesson learned” following such an event would feel similarly flat. Inhuman events require a human response, disciplined approach, and evidence of collaboration for the greater good.
Communicators must not be distracted by peripheral chatter: Naysayers and talking heads rarely have full access to the privileged details, nor are they in the position of delicately and deftly resolving the matter in the public eye. Unfortunately, though, it is human nature to speculate and fill the void when the facts are still unknown. A rush to judgment is inevitable. Crises give the self-righteous, the all-knowing and conspiracy theorists their time in the sun.
From our experience, we know that communications dynamics change when law enforcement, regulatory agencies, and large investors are involved. The pressure from the public for answers can be crushing, and there certainly is an obligation to keep affected audiences informed. But keep in mind, you are under no obligation to respond to every media inquiry that comes your way, nor are you under any obligation to respond in the manner that is demanded. We know all too well that some news coverage will be agenda-driven regardless of the content of the information or availability of multiple credible sources. Remember: the part of the communicator is to educate, inform and keep the conversation as objective and elevated as possible.
The core approach to our practice is this: leaders and authorities who act in good faith for public safety and public interest, who communicate proactively and consistently and responsibly, stand to be remembered (and appreciated) for their strength and resilience over time.