Empathy – Theresa May’s Achilles heel

At the height of a crisis, the pre-eminent principle of communication is empathy.  Every public utterance, every written statement, every action must display concern and care for those who’ve been injured, financially damaged or affected.  It’s astounding that this fundamental aspect of crisis communications is often ignored or poorly understood by organisations and their spokespeople, despite its essential role in maintaining the trust of customers, suppliers, sponsors, investors and other stakeholders.

The Prime Minister’s handling of the Grenfell Tower fire is one example.  Theresa May’s failure to meet any survivors, volunteers or local residents on her visit to the scene of the disaster, the day after flames engulfed the building and many trapped residents, was widely condemned as a heartless, uncompassionate response. Predictably, the Prime Minister was strongly criticized by angry members of the public, appalled media commentators, opposition politicians and even members of her own Conservative Party, including former Conservative Minister Michael Portillo, who lamented May’s failure to show humanity. Negative headlines and continued questions about her leadership were inevitable and self-inflicted.  By contrast, the Labour Party Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was seen speaking to several local people and hugging others, emphasising a “man of the people” approach.

At the recent 11th PR Week Crisis Communications Conference in East London, the day before the Grenfell Tower disaster, brands that have come through potential or actual major reputational challenges, including Sussex Police, Battersea Dogs Home, Direct Line and Thomson, were extremely candid about their experiences and revealed how empathy helped to limit reputational damage and rebuild trust and respect.  There is much our Prime Minister could have learned from these speakers, including Fiona Jennings, External Communications Director of TUI Group (Thomson Airways; Thomson and First Choice holiday brands; Thomson Cruise) who explained how compassion was the driving force of the company’s response when 30 British holidaymakers travelling with Thomson were gunned down on the beach at Sousse in Tunisia in June 2015.  Importantly, Thomson’s Chief Executive Officer and its Managing Director met and comforted traumatised passengers who flew back on the first plane out of Tunisia and every one of the 44 planes that evacuated British tourists were met by Thomson staff.  Fiona Jennings stressed that everything the company did and said throughout this most emotional and tragic period was based on the principle of “customer first”.

When big brands have got this wrong, the opposite of “customer first” has been the modus operandi.  The response of United Airlines in April 2017 when a passenger was filmed being violently dragged off an overbooked plane was perhaps the worst corporate PR failure of recent times.  After the CEO, Oscar Munoz, showed no compassion for the shocked and bloodied passenger, blamed him and praised staff, United Airlines’ stock value dropped by 1.1%, wiping $255m off the value of the airline.  Social media was overwhelmingly damning, people worldwide demanded boycotts of the airline and Mr Munoz was forced to backtrack, belatedly stating that no passenger should ever be treated in such a way.

Years before United Airlines, BP was perhaps the most famous example of getting it wrong after the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil leak, which killed 11 people and caused an environmental disaster in April 2010.  Speaking to reporters, the then CEO Tony Hayward uttered the immortal words “There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do, I’d like my life back“, giving the impression that the company’s main concern was itself, its own survival and the bottom line.

All communications teams and spokespeople need to understand how to avoid such damaging PR own goals.  Specialist training in crisis media handling and crisis interview skills can ensure your organisation knows how to communicate appropriately and effectively in such circumstances.  Such training is a vital investment and insurance policy against risks like injuries or deaths of customers or staff, terror attacks, damage to property, cyber-attacks, data loss and product failure.  When it comes to reputation, brands simply cannot afford to miscommunicate in a crisis.

Copyright © 2017 Bridgid Nzekwu

Bridgid Nzekwu is Head of Media Training at TNR, part of the Press Association.  She coaches spokespeople in business, politics and the public sector in media interview and public speaking skills and trains comms teams in media handling.  Bridgid is a former Channel 4 News presenter and reporter and is a freelance anchor for ITV News. 

Follow Bridgid on Twitter @BridgidNzekwu

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