The Hero and the Villain
Some people would have you believe that crisis communication is highly complex and nuanced, which may be true to some extent. However, the basics are so simple that it's a revelation.
People like to boil things down to a simple essence. More often than not, it comes to this: You will either be the hero or the villain, the good or the bad. We know that most crises likely contain mistakes all around. However, the public wants to have someone it can blame. (Read: they are consuming media with the constant question lurking in the shadows: Should they blame you?)
And the answer is no, of course not!
When I work with leaders or anyone in the limelight, one of our first steps is to work on the archetypes of their personal brand. This is because the subconscious brain’s regions perceive and classify people on a primal level. This process happens quickly and more simply than you'd think, so it's vital to know exactly how to shape public perception accordingly. Even more importantly, the effects are enduring—for better or worse, once formed, they create a lens through which everything is perceived. (Think Snapchat filter.) Unlike a good app, however, it takes a heavy lift to turn these deeply embedded impressions around.
In crisis situations, whether we're dealing with a personal brand or an organizational one, something bad has happened. So, people first want to know if and how it affects them and, second, whom to blame. Humans are wired to look for a hero and a villain. Our survival mechanism makes us feel safer when we know whom to support and whom to guard against. Research shows that people believe they make an honest effort to be fair, even-minded, and rational. Neuroscience tells us this just isn't so.
The truth is that our survival mechanism has us wired to look for blame even before we have all the information. This is because gathering info can take a long time, but we have to know which predator to fight or flee from right away.
So, while the media is holding its own set of trials, here are some subtle signals that people pick up on and judge—often without knowing it—to determine in their minds who is the villain and who is the hero.
1. Be visible. When you take the time and display the courage to keep people updated, face the music, and do whatever else is needed, you show leadership. In the movies and children’s stories, the archetype of the villain lurks in the shadows hiding out until they strike. Heroes stand in the sunlight, not afraid to be seen. Sometimes it may not be wise to chime in immediately but speak as soon as appropriate. PR 101 tells us that whoever speaks first gets in front of the story and gets to frame it. Everyone else is just reacting to what they said. As a general rule of thumb, this is the prime spot to be in. Don't defend yourself against other peoples' narratives. Set the narrative yourself.
2. Don't be afraid to show your sadness. A long-time client once sent me that says great leadership is the ability to hide your panic. Obviously, you don't want to show panic. You need to convey strength and resolve even amidst the most turbulent times. On the other hand, don't be afraid to show sadness about an injury or death. Don't be afraid of your emotions, as long as they are appropriate and tempered. When people try to hide strong emotions, those physiological impulses will somehow find a way to express themselves. It might be in the form of a twitch, tension in the face, or awkward gestures. Whatever it is, there's a risk it could look "off" somehow and be misinterpreted by the audience as you having something to hide. The last thing you need is to be misunderstood. Don't let that happen to you.
3. Do not attack. Unfortunately, attack ads work in politics. Attack speeches in a crisis don't. The hallmark of a villain is that they attack. The hallmark of a hero is they protect the innocent and the vulnerable. You can say that justice will be done, and offenders will be punished. You can harshly condemn certain behaviors but don't make personal criticisms even if it is likely that someone has broken the law. This preserves your credibility as further information comes to bear, and keeps you in a dignified light.
Throughout all of this, remember to take care of yourself. Countless mistakes have been made by the most brilliant minds simply because they were overwhelmed by stress or sleep deprivation. Leaders tell me this feels counterintuitive in real-time, but truly, it's one of the best things you can do for your organization.