A graphic of an arm with a heart on the sleeve.

In a crisis, vulnerability can be your biggest strength

| March 20, 2024

Chris Duffy

Chris Duffy

Vice President, Public Relations

When I was a television reporter in Green Bay, Wisconsin, I was sent out to cover an employee death at a manufacturing facility. The CEO of the company held a press conference and every media outlet in town was there. We reporters were there to find out what happened, which safety measures had failed, and what lessons were learned from this tragic accident that led to the death of one of the CEO’s employees.

We were ready to grill the guy.

I remember him approaching the podium, visibly shaken with bloodshot eyes, armed with a tissue. He spoke tearfully about how they had lost one of their own that day; what the worker was like as a person; how he had just gotten off the phone with their family; how they’d cried together. He spoke with heartfelt sincerity and remorse about how this was the worst day possible, both for the company and the deceased’s loved ones – and expressed regret that it happened on his watch.

Clearly overcome with grief, he took accountability for the tragedy and apologized. The media saw how hurt he was, and we instinctively eased off. Our planned line of questioning softened. A few simple factual questions were asked and the press conference ended. The CEO hugged his colleagues, and he walked away.

Instead of the headlines reading, “Factory worker dies. Could the company have prevented it?” They read, “‘We lost one of our own.’ Company leaders grieve loss of coworker.

Years later, I entered the field of public relations, and now I help clients through tough days. We can’t make our clients feel sad or a certain way. But we’ve seen it time and again: people are willing to forgive people when they take responsibility for their actions. When a spokesperson in a crisis is authentic, shows vulnerability, and apologizes if needed, the reputational damage decreases significantly.

The day of a crisis is the time for tapping into your humanity – not for being defensive, rationalizing or justifying. It’s about being honest and open about what happened and acknowledging the impact it’s had on those who’ve been hurt.

As I think back to that manufacturing plant in Green Bay and the incident that happened over 15 years ago, I don’t remember that CEO’s name or even the company he worked for. What I will never forget is his devastation over the tragic loss of his coworker. In the end, the public won’t remember every detail of a crisis and may forget about it altogether. But what they will remember is how it made them feel. And if the spokesperson shows vulnerability, it’s likely that the public will feel sympathy for the humanity of the incident.

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