Crisis — the Power of Language

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.

George Orwell (1903 – 1950), “Politics and the English Language”, 1946

Words are powerful and can be very damaging when used carelessly.  They have the power to evoke potent emotions and they can help inspire, encourage and motivate people. They can transform the world that we live in and in a crisis they can be your strongest allies or your most damaging adversary.

One should always be very careful when using words – but this is especially so in the midst of a crisis. Who can forget when, during the middle of the largest oil spill in US history, the Chief Executive of BP, Tony Hayward, said ‘I’d like my life back”?

When a crisis breaks a company needs to be particularly careful in framing its response. While attempting to assert control it also needs to be aware of the implications of the response and what it may mean in the future.  Framed properly, a trained spokesperson can use their language to calm nerves in a very anxious time and can give the impression that the company is in control and working hard to resolve the crisis.

However, there are always a number of questions that need to be answered when preparing this initial response. Can the company accept responsibility? Should you apologise for what happened? Should the statement contain emotion or should it just outline the facts in a cold and matter-of-fact manner? These questions can be addressed a long time before the specific crisis ever arises and therefore eliminate potential catastrophic roadblocks.

When writing a crisis manual a number of legally approved draft statements should be prepared. Having these to hand will allow you to respond quickly and effectively. Valuable time can be lost if the initial response statement has to be sent for ‘legal approval’.

Unnecessary delays have to be avoided. Having a debate during a crisis on the merits and implications of issuing an apology or sympathising with the family in the event of a death can waste valuable time. These debates should take place before a crisis ever arises and therefore ensure that a response can be issued in a timely and effective manner.

However, the language in all crisis communications materials should be carefully managed and reviewed. For example, has the media spokesperson been selected and trained correctly?  (Body language can be just as important as what the person says.)

Be conscious of your medium. An email to your employees may require different language to any engagement on social media.

Jargon – has all jargon and academic language been removed and adapted? The language should be simple and self-explanatory.

Respect – are the communication materials respectful of all audiences including stakeholders, employees, media and the general public

Text – are words the best method to explain what happened? It may be useful to have a graphic designer / photographer / videographer available to allow you to communicate clearly what happened in a simple and logically way.

Social media – can your press release be converted into 140 characters or less (Twitter)? Unlikely – prepare alternative strategies to allow you to engage via the Social Media channels.

A serious crisis can destroy companies and / or individuals however proper preparation combined with an appropriate response can actually help improve the reputation of both. Language is a powerful weapon and should be treated as such in all communications.