On a warm Spring day, I received a call from the CEO of a nursing home facility. A gunman walked into the senior living center and killed eight elderly people in their beds. The CEO asked for me to hurry to the small North Carolina town as news helicopters and live trucks circled the large police response.
Since this was a hospital for seniors, the staff needed to continue to care for the elderly patients in the crime scene. I walked past the press line, crawled under the crime scene tape, and entered the building. I first encountered investigating police as I entered the building. As I slowly progressed down the hall, employees were standing in a circle and reciting the Lord’s Prayer. I turned to the CEO’s office and found him at his desk with his head in his hands. He looked up at me and said “I am so glad you are here.”
In crisis communication, sometimes bad things happen to good people. When you counsel someone in a crisis, it is important to help them “do the right thing.” Think about it. They may be in grief. They are worried about sustaining operations. They are worried about legal implications. They have messages from Good Morning America producers wanting media interviews. You need to help them focus on what is important. They will be judged based on their actions once they knew there was a problem.
My counsel to the CEO was to have him personally call each victim’s family member to tell them about the tragedy. In the back of my mind, I knew that was where the news media would go next. But more importantly, a personal phone call from the CEO was the decent thing to do. It was the right thing to do.
The CEO started making the phone calls. The family members were justifiably angry. They yelled at him. They said “you were supposed to keep my parents safe!” After the final phone calls, he sank in his chair. It was the most difficult task he ever had to do. But at least, he had the decency to notify the victims’ loved ones personally. It was the right thing to do.
When we look at the communication priorities below, notice that the media doesn’t come first. It may seem to be the most important, but actually it comes last in the communication priorities. The bigger the emergency, then the shorter the timespan that the priorities need to be completed. But, it is important to note as a communicator that the media is not the first priority.
If you are faced with a crisis, counsel your leader to do the right thing. Let it be the “North Star.” It should guide all of your decision making processes. The American public can be forgiving if you put decency before policy.