Have a Heart: When to Choose Empathy over Accuracy

May 30, 2018

Now more than ever, it seems like every day brings with it more bad news from all over the world. From politically and religiously charged acts of terrorism to racially offensive advertisements to relentless school shootings, the wide spectrum of public screw-ups and tragedies have one thing in common: someone needs to comment.

This is seemingly when bad gets worse. Take it from University of Oregon. You may recall recent news that a student died at a boat-in campground at Shasta Lake after a night of partying. Instead of sharing what should’ve been a kneejerk reaction of blameless empathy and sadness, the university posted a statement that was insensitive at best. At worst, it was accusatory.

The university’s Division of Student Life said, “As devastating as this sudden passing is, it is important to point out that this tragedy is connected to an unauthorized tradition among many college students. Students from many institutions have a history of demonstrating poor life choices during visits to Lake Shasta.”

Victim-shaming is never a good look, and this statement inadvertently blames the student’s death on his “poor life choices.” Instead of expressing grief and support, fingers were pointed.

Of course, there’s a PR lesson here. While PR teams are encouraged to develop timely, accurate statements, there’s a time and place for everything. In sensitive situations, empathy needs to take precedence over punchy statements and cold, hard facts. So much of PR is connecting a human element to businesses and stories, so why lose that during a tragedy or crisis situation?

It’s not always about solving the problem. Much like when a friend gets bad news, first and foremost, your role as their friend is to simply support and be a shoulder to cry on. Problems must get sorted out in time, but there’s a much-needed grace period integral to the healing process that requires basic human compassion. Sometimes “being right” isn’t about proving a point—it’s about showing emotion and allowing vulnerability that brings people together instead of isolating them.

Not every situation is the same, and there is no tragedy response handbook. But when it comes to a business or institution’s reaction to crisis events that affect real people, it’s best to feel with your heart first, before thinking through how to tackle the problem.


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