Tip to spokespersons: Never say "only" and "dead" in the same sentence
My heart goes out to all those who suffered losses of any kind resulting from effects of hurricane Irene and the subsequent tropical storm. And I certainly don't envy the jobs of the crisis spokespersons--governors and mayors, police and fire personnel, disaster response organizations and others. Spokespersons have a very important responsibility updating citizens and media outlets, conveying difficult facts while being sympathetic and empathetic to the plight of everyone affected. And while "it ain't that bad" and "sure coulda been a whole lot worse" may seem like appropriate, hopeful observations, tremendous care must be taken in how, when and to whom pep talks are delivered.
Take Connecticut's governor Dan Malloy, for example. On Wednesday, in comments I read in a Wall Street Journal article, Malloy said, "Let's put this in perspective. Only two people died. It's miraculous if you think about it." He was addressing hundreds of thousands of people who had been and were being impacted by the surprising wrath of the storm. People were angry that the response to power outages wasn't faster and more organized. People were devastatingly sad that their homes were damaged or even completely destroyed. But most importantly, there were families and communities that were mourning the loss of loved ones whose lives were taken by the storm's furor. "It ain't that bad", "coulda been worse" and "It's a miracle there ain't more dead" are all very insensitive remarks that--in my opinion--crossed the line from constructive to destructive.
"Aw, he was jes' tryin to help" you say?
Had he considered the impact of such insensitive remarks by thinking of the specific audiences he was addressing, it wouldn't have taken much thought to realize it. It all comes around to the need to empathize with your audience's pain points, whether you're a crisis spokesperson serving the public, a director of PR for a public company, or a sales manager for a small tech startup. Be strategic with your messages. Think about what to say, and what NOT to say. Like my dad always said, "Why do you think you were given two ears but only one mouth?"