Communicating with empathy following a tragedy

Much has been written about the importance of organizations communicating effectively in the wake of a tragedy. That includes being mindful of what you say to avoid appearing tone-deaf.

From the devastating hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico to the mass shooting in Las Vegas and the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal, we’ve seen countless viral examples of people who got it wrong.

There’s the CBS News attorney who posted a comment about the Las Vegas shootings on Facebook, “I’m actually not even sympathetic [bc] country music fans are often republican gun toters.” And, Donna Karan who weighed in on the Weinstein scandal by wondering, “Are we asking for it by presenting all the sensuality and sexuality?”

Here are three tips to help organizations with communicating effectively and with empathy and understanding:

1. Audit all planned communications, including advertising placements and social media content, in deference to the seriousness of an event. Consider whether your communications would be upsetting or offensive to those who are hurting from the tragedy. A notable example is the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority which moved swiftly following the city’s deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history to rebrand its “What happens here, stays here” slogan to #Vegas Strong.

2. Don’t let your communications look (or sound) like you’re using a tragedy for personal gain. AT&T was roundly criticized for using the anniversary of 9/11 to promote a cell phone. Criticism was leveled at politicians who inserted the gun debate into public discourse within hours after the Las Vegas tragedy.

3. Consider whether to keep or cancel a planned event. A gun show that was scheduled at a Las Vegas casino for the weekend after the mass shooting was canceled out of respect for those affected by the tragedy.

At the end of the day, there are many more businesses and individuals who get it right than get it wrong. One of my favorite examples is Tony award winner Lin-Manuel Miranda who dedicated his Hamilton acceptance speech to the 49 victims of Orlando’s Pulse nightclub massacre. “And love, is love, is love, is love, is love, is love, is love, is love, cannot be killed or swept aside.”

Unfortunately, with today’s 24/7 news cycle and the ubiquity of Twitter and Facebook, those who get it wrong get a lot more recognition.

Carolyn Reis, APR, an expert on communicating effectively

Carolyn Reis, APR

Carolyn Reis,  APR, is a veteran public relations consultant nationally trained in crisis communications. Her firm, Orlando-based Reis Corporate Public Relations, focuses on serving the strategic marketing communications needs of business-to-business clients in Florida and national companies with a Florida presence. You can reach her at or on Twitter @carolynreisapr.

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