Geoffrey Stackhouse, Managing Director, Clarity Solutions
"Never blame the victim". That's my longstanding crisis mantra.
So I nearly choked on my Easter egg when I read the crisis spokesman and CFO for the Sydney Royal Easter Show, Michael Collins, slamming ‘victims’ of a serious accident on the Show’s star attraction, the Super Slide.
Five show employees were hospitalised after crashing into the ride’s safety barriers. Injuries included a woman with two broken legs, others with broken arms, broken ribs and internal bleeding.
Sure, they were doing it after hours, and when the ride was closed for safety reasons. But blaming them is not going to help you.
Compassion aside, there are at least three good reasons you need to fight that urge to blame the victims – no matter how much they contributed to the incident.
First up it makes you look mean and heartless. In a crisis you need to win the public’s hearts and minds, not alienate them.
Like it or not people are making judgements about you and this is your chance to show your values. In black and white it comes down to whether you're the Hero or the Villain in the story, and Heroes don't blame others.
Secondly, reporters love the scent of conflict, they're drawn to it and it trumps all other messages. If you criticise the victim, that’s 100 per cent guaranteed to be reported.
That means another key message has to die to make room for your outburst. If you limit yourself to comments that demonstrate your commitment to safety and concern, that’s what the public will take out.
Finally, it will keep the crisis in the spotlight for longer.
Blaming the victim immediately triggers their ‘right of reply’. They are never going to admit to being in the wrong, so they’ll try to flick the blame back to you. It’s a vicious circle you just can’t win.
How do you handle it?
1. Pick the panic. This incident is about safety and could raise serious concerns for Show goers. But the organisers didn’t really get that safety message out to reassure the public.
2. Avoid speculation. Stick to the known facts and avoid even pointing out who could be to blame, let alone blaming them. It just gives airtime to ideas which are not helping you manage the incident.
3. Only field a trained and empathetic spokesperson. A CFO is a strange choice because they’re not usually hired for their EQ or verbal skills. Have a spokesperson trained and ready to go, with a backup in case they’re unavailable.