It was an honor to work closely with crisis communications professionals at a Crisis Communications conference in Chicago this week. The theme: Navigating a crisis to protect your brand through storytelling.

My task was to help these industry and government communicators understand what it was like going through a crisis as a victim – what information I was looking for as a traumatized indvidual and what messages were out there that I did or didn’t hear. The goal was to use my experience to start a conversation about the challenges of reaching traumatized audiences. So that organizations will consider different groups who may be impacted – beyond those with physical injuries – to craft their messages, tell their stories, and enable a fuller, more inclusive response when a crisis or tragedy hits.

We discussed two main issues:

  • Identifying your audiences
  • Messaging to reach your audience
Identify audiences

We tend to think of only physical affects when we think of a crisis – those killed, people injured, those who suffered property damage. Those are important audiences who need attention after a crisis like a natural disaster, terrorist attack, or industrial accident. And it’s natural to have concern and compassion when people experience this kind of loss and devastation.

Yet, despite the fact that the news media focuses attention on those victims and survivors, they are only the tip of the iceberg of people who might be affected by these kinds of events.

As an example, take a fire at a manufacturing plant. In addition to those killed or physically injured (and their families), there are a host of people whose lives could be affected, such as:

  • On-site employees and security personnel who responded to help
  • Witnesses to the event – employees, visitors to the worksite, neighbors or community members
  • Friends and close work colleagues of the people who were physically injured or killed
  • First responders like police, fire, and EMS
  • Employees out of work time because of the incident
  • Suppliers and others who work with your business who may be impacted by the plant shutting down or who know and work with those individual impacted

Many of those people will walk away from the scene with some level of post-traumatic stress. That’s a normal reaction to finding oneself in a horrible, unexpected situation like a school shooting, natural disaster, or fire.

In fact, trauma is a known effect of these events: The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) recognizes that the majority of injuries or trauma in most disaster settings are psychological as opposed to physical. The ratio is as little 4 psychological injuries to every 1 physical injury to as much as 50 to 1.

We just aren’t doing a good job of helping people understand that – when it happens to them or their family or community. Next week, we’ll discuss messaging to normalize reactions to trauma and reach that wider audience after a crisis.