Never underestimate the power of emotion in crisis management
Emotion is often underestimated in crisis management. And yet, it’s one of the most powerful aspects of a crisis. The power of emotion is so profound that it can create crises within crises.
For example, fail to judge or appreciate the negative emotion stirred by an incident or an issue, and you can very quickly find yourself dealing with a viral crisis that continues to spiral beyond control.
Additionally, fail to connect with the hearts of your stakeholders in a crisis, and if the negative emotion is strong enough, you will fail to reach them in a way that is significant enough to enable you to successfully manage the crisis.
A recent example of this was the Ebola crisis of 2014.
The escalation of Fearbola
When Ebola was overseas contained to West Africa, North Americans were aware of it – and it was sad to think about – but the disease was an ocean away in a different world from our own. We couldn’t relate to it, nor did we have an urgent need to be concerned by it. We were aware, but as it did not directly impact us, we carried on with our daily lives. This is human nature.
Then, in the summer of 2014, it was announced that two American missionary doctors, who had contracted the viral disease, would be brought back to the US to be cared for at Emory University Hospital. All of a sudden, North Americans woke up. And we panicked. “You’re bringing the plague into America,” was one of thousands of panicked comments that Emory and the CDC received from the general public at the time.
Within a few hours, this panic had escalated to a viral point. Emory was faced with the overwhelming feeling of having the whole country in uproar against their decision and willingness to care for these two American doctors.
The emotion associated with the thought of willingly bringing the deadly Ebola virus onto our soil, into our reality, was so powerful that it developed its own name: Fearbola. A potential crisis within the crisis of Ebola, Fearbola is the irrational fear of Ebola.
Although Emory managed this overwhelming escalation beautifully, at the time of their initial announcement to the public, they misjudged the emotional impact that the news of caring for these two doctors would have on the general public. And while they were perfectly prepared and honored for the challenge, this oversight forced them to manage what could have been (had they been any less prepared than they thankfully were) a very intense crisis with potentially dire consequences.
Side note: This case study is a fascinating story. If you’re interested in learning more about it directly from Emory, join us for this upcoming webinar
Which emotions do you need to pay attention to in a crisis?
While all crises will stir emotions within your stakeholders (e.g.: worry, regret, stress, dismay, etc.), the ones you need to pay the closest attention to in crisis management – and anticipate as much as possible, whenever probable – are the negative, inherent basic human emotions. As confirmed by Paul Ekman and other esteemed scholars, these negative basic human emotions are:
On the flip-side, happiness is also an inherent emotion, though if you spread happiness in a crisis, well you aren’t exactly in a crisis, are you?
The power of inherent emotion in crisis management
The thing about inherent emotions is that they are both highly intense and highly relatable. Two ingredients for the recipe of disaster when dealing with a crisis.
When we are overcome with any of these emotions, all logic goes out the window. Fearbola, as an example, is the irrational fear of Ebola. But just because it’s irrational, doesn’t make it insignificant. In fact, it is this intensely profound fear (inherent emotion) that makes all rationale fly out the window. And if all rationale is out the window, this means that those overcome by this irrational fear cannot be reached with logic. They are reacting with their hearts and, as the crisis management saying goes, you cannot trump emotion with logic.
So then how do you manage an emotionally impactful crisis?
If you cannot trump emotion with logic, then what’s left? When a highly emotional crisis occurs, your focus needs to be on reaching the hearts of your stakeholders in order to then be able to reach their minds.
The best way to do this is to develop a trusting, emotional relationship with your stakeholders prior to ever experiencing a crisis. Reach their hearts now, and you will instinctively have their hearts at the onset of a crisis.
Mountain View Police Department (MVPD) is a great example of this. The wonderful people over at MVPD seek to find opportunities every single day to connect with their community (i.e.: their key stakeholders) and strengthen the trust they have in one another. As Captain Chris Hsiung explained in this podcast, a couple years ago MVPD experienced an internal crisis that could have very quickly and very easily destroyed the trust of their community within the police department. But because the police department had already earned the trust and developed an emotionally strong relationship with their community, when the news of the crisis broke, their community instinctively knew that this crisis was not a reflection of the police department as a whole.
As a result, instead of uproar due to emotions such as disgust and anger, the community mourned with the police department and gave them their emotional support. MVPD had already won the hearts of their stakeholders, and although this crisis, as Captain Hsiung says, forced the police department to “make a withdrawal out of their bank of community trust, there was still enough trust left over.”
But what if a crisis strikes and you haven’t yet built up that emotional connection with your stakeholders?
Or what if a crisis strikes and, despite all your best efforts, the emotional impact is simply too strong, logic goes out the window and the crisis continues to escalate to overwhelming levels? The reality is that this can happen. It’s one of the major risks of a crisis.
If you find yourself in this type of situation, you need to remember that you cannot trump emotion with logic. So don’t waste time trying to do so.
Instead, focus your energy on reaching the hearts of your stakeholders first. Understand the emotional impact by asking questions like the following:
- What is the emotion your stakeholders are feeling?
- What in particular is causing them to feel this way?
- If you were in their shoes, what would you want to hear / see from the organization?
- What would you expect of the organization?
- How can you shape your communications and your actions to be emotionally impactful and relatable?
The key is to understand and connect with your stakeholders on an emotional level. Win their hearts and they will then let you into their minds. It’s not a simple task, which is part of what makes successful crisis management so challenging. But, as it’s a critically important challenge, it’s a concept that should be discussed, strategized and rehearsed now. Not just in crisis exercises, but in all forms of corporate communication, everyday.
A brilliant campaign that plays on emotional impact well
I realize that this post is a big one to digest. So I want to leave you with a video that I recently came across. This video’s purpose is to reach people on an emotional level with the goal of creating awareness of a crisis that our planet is currently facing. It’s an educational piece, but the creators knew that in order to get people to listen, to care, to learn and to hopefully act, they first had to reach their hearts. Take a look…
This is one of the best adverts I have seen – EnjoyThe Rainforest Action Group
Posted by Keith Evans on Monday, November 2, 2015
Campaign by The Rainforest Action Network
Take a moment to self-reflect and then implement
- What is it about this video that reached you (if it in fact reached you)?
- What did you feel during the first half, versus the second half of the video?
- What are some lessons you can take away from this campaign and adapt into your own crisis preparedness?
Image credit: Cranach/shutterstock.com
Author of Crisis Ready: Building an Invincible Brand in an Uncertain World, Melissa Agnes is a leading authority on crisis preparedness, reputation management, and brand protection. Agnes is a coveted keynote speaker, commentator, and advisor to some of today’s leading organizations faced with the greatest risks. Learn more about Melissa and her work here.