Featured in the April edition of Minnesota PRSA Perspectives Blog
By James E. Lukaszewski, ABC, Fellow IABC; APR, Fellow PRSA; PRSA BEPS Emeritus
The highest priority, greatest threat and most crucial aspect of managing crises is the victim dimension. Victims provide the explosive emotional drive that results in high visibility, high liability and high anxiety. The reality is most organizations, hospitals, schools and universities do a sloppy, insensitive or timid job of dealing with victims. This can be very costly to your reputation.
There are many powerful reasons why managing victims is so difficult for organizations. Victim behavior is irrational and management’s obsession with tangible results over something that is clearly emotional, and by-in-large immeasurable, forces them to appear anti-victim, emotionless and cold. Furthermore, management training in ethics and managing emotional circumstances is at best minimal. On top of that, in management circles, those who respond with empathy and sympathy may be criticized as being soft, sentimental, even sissies.
Legal issues also make victim management a challenge. Managers rely on peer and legal advice telling them to avoid being empathetic or apologetic. As a result, they are often reluctant to promptly assume blame or responsibility, which makes them look uncaring and even threatening.
Managers and leaders may excuse their callous behavior by saying, “We didn’t want to overreact.” “It was the lawyers who held us back.” When individuals are victimized, however, instantaneous or at least extremely prompt empathetic action is required, even if it appears to be an overreaction to some. Failure to act causes the greatest reputation and trust damage and accelerate the victimization of everyone at risk. Overreaction is a onetime opportunity, which if lost, generally causes a cost explosion in reputation and remediation costs.
In crises, one crucial strategic responsibility of leadership is to have in place a victim response unit and special victim action team. These teams include staff from the organization’s communications department, legal department, human resources and victim management specialists. They immediately help leaders avoid both the collateral damage and devastating consequences of mismanaging the victim dimension.
Management needs to focus on the significant benefits to reputation, public trust and legal liability reduction that will be achieved by the prompt, empathetic and apologetic managing of victims. Remember, victim follow up may continue for years after a crisis.
Victims’ behaviors are driven by powerful emotion. After a crisis, there is anger, betrayal, disbelief, dread and fear. There is frustration, powerlessness and helplessness. There is the feeling of inadequacy and the agony of walking-but-wounded loneliness. In fact, these are the words that help identify those truly victimized.
Victims become intellectually deaf. When humans are victimized, the first thing that happens is that our inner voice begins repeating over and over to us exactly what happened, how stupid we were, how careless we had to be to get into this kind of jam. Our outer voice, the one everyone can hear is telling everyone else about their suffering and who is responsible (you!). This is what makes dealing with victims so difficult. It is also what gives the victims such great visibility.
Victims experience instant self-absorption and focus on the problems and afflictions that being a victim causes. They hear little. They notice little and they are primarily stimulated by additional negative information about their circumstances or similar ideas. Even sincere offers or actions to help can be interpreted as intrusions or attempts to control.
Victims are emotionally engaged 24/7. Put yourself in their place. If you are an adult, you have been victimized by something. Once it happened to you, you were consumed by it, at least for a time.
Everything is a question. Victims’ inability to absorb information from the outside leads to their asking questions, sometimes repeatedly. The questions they ask might be simple and embarrassing like, “Who’s responsible?” “Why did this happen to me?” “Why couldn’t this have been prevented?” “Surely there must have been some alternatives that would have headed off this problem before it happened.” “Who is going to pay all my bills while I suffer these problems?” “Why didn’t you warn me if you knew this could happen?”
Victims have four powerful needs. If these four needs are met promptly – preferably by the perpetrator – victims can more easily move through their state of victimization and be less likely to call or respond to attorneys, the media or even to call attention to themselves. The reality is that if the perpetrator fails to meet their needs or does so only partially, victims will find ways to help themselves, often at the organization’s expense in both dollars and reputation. The following is what most victims require in order to begin their personal restoration:
1. Validation: That they are indeed victims, it is real, they are not making it up. This recognition is best rendered by the perpetrating organization; if not, public groups, government or the news media will do it. Silence by organization leaders or a perpetrator is a toxic communication strategy.
2. Visibility: A platform from which to describe their pain, suffering and warn others. Preferably, the platform should come from the perpetrating organization or a credible independent organization that can help the victim explain what happened, warn others, or just talk it out while convincing others to avoid similar risks or to take appropriate preventive action.
3. Vindication (its free): Let the victims take credit for changes made to ensure that whatever happened to the victims will be prevented from happening to others. Too often, the perpetrating organization takes credit for these improvements and changes, and makes the victims even angrier. Victims rarely sue because they are angry, their life has been changed dramatically or because lots of plaintiff’s attorneys are chasing them.
Generally, victims sue because their situation is not acknowledged and their feelings are ignored, belittled or trivialized. If they are prevented from publicly discussing what happened to them in meaningful ways and no one is taking prompt constructive action to prevent similarly situated individuals, animals or living systems from suffering the same fate, victims will look to take more aggressive action. Vindication is free. The damage caused by preventing the victims from claiming credit can be very expensive.
Giving credit away is free and has tremendous immediate benefits.
4. Extreme empathy/apology: Issued directly and promptly tends to dramatically reduce victimization and virtually eliminate litigation. While the lawyers may strongly advise against any form of apology because, under law, an apology is an admission, there is a growing body of evidence demonstrating that apologies, promptly and sincerely delivered, virtually eliminate the potential for retaliatory litigation. This means that while the lawyer’s advice needs to be consulted, apologies or extreme empathy quickly accelerate finding new lawyers to negotiate an effective settlement rather than pursue a futile effort to deny that which victims need most: someone to take responsibility. Courts prefer settlements.
Apology is the atomic energy of empathy. When a sincere apology is offered, bad things start to stop happening.
The greatest barrier to disclosure and appropriate victim attitude management is a leader or administrator’s fear of liability, fostered by well-meaning but misguided counsel. Any credible way to reduce or mitigate this fear is essential to better behavior, reputation preservation and litigation reduction. There is a much more extensive and detailed monograph called “Managing the Victim Dimension of Large-Scale Disasters.”
The victimized have enormous power in our society. When there are victims, set aside your inherently adversarial training and nature and pragmatically and humanely manage the victim dimension. When you think about it, isn’t this how your mom taught you to behave?
Apologies, which can only be authorized by organizational leadership, are the greatest gift of compassion any victim can receive.