A statement of a CEO or a high-ranking government official is one of the rituals following an accident or disaster with fatalities. The words are meant to give comfort, express sympathies, in other words: show empathy. However, good intentions and good results don’t always go well together.
An example can be seen in the recent case of a tragic murder of a 48-year old German father and husband on St. Vincent.
The killing of a foreigner was the first in 13 years in a region which stands for a literal haven of safety and security in a world of turmoil and instability (even though, as a side note, the German Foreign Office has published a warning about incidental pirate attacks against yacht owners in the region).
The reputation of St. Vincent must have been on the mind of St. Vincent’s Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves when he publicly expressed his condolences. Among many sympathetic words, something slipped his lips which in hindsight seems to be very inappropriate:
“This is a terrible, terrible stain on our country; and this criminal act by these two masked intruders disturbing the tranquility of persons on the yachts. It cost millions of dollars, because we sell peace, security, tranquility.”
Again, Mr. Gonsalves made a lot of sympathetic statements and also took immediate action to support the family of the victim and the injured captain of the boat. But he also made this comment which clearly reveals his major concern, notably that the fatal attack cour have a lasting economic impact on the Caribbean destination for the rich and beautiful.
To make it very clear: In a situation where people die or suffer from a tragedy which changes their lives forever, there is no room for economic statements! Not a word! Zero. Nada. Niente!!“Money and empathy don’t go together. Never.” The lapse of Mr. Gonsalves even seemed to be an unforced error (to use a tennis expression), since the mentioned statement was part of a radio speech, not in response to a critical question by a reporter, given under pressure.
If this would have been the case, here’s the only correct answer to such a question: “Economic considerations are not our concern at this moment. Our entire focus right now is on supporting the family which suffers from a tragic loss, and to take every possible action to ensure that such a terrible event never occurs again.” Full stop!
Another lesson from this case: You can do a lot of things right in a crisis. But one little misstep can lead to a communication crisis following the actual crisis which may be even worse than the original cause of the crisis. In a crisis, every action, every word, every facial expression is closely observed by the public.
Keep this in mind, and make sure you have the right words in place before you go public. After all, empathy is a tough exercise, especially in a crisis.