TALKING POINT: Crisis management: Communicating with families

July 26, 2023
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© Fizkes - Shutterstock

Each month, we will be sharing a discussion piece written by a member of the maritime industry who can offer a unique or interesting perspective on an aspect of seafarers’ welfare. You can join the conversation on our social media channels – Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

This month, Crisis Response Manager Kyle Fawkes from Navigate Response discusses how company leaders can ensure they put the wellbeing of crew members’ families first when delivering bad news.

Kyle Fawkes is a Crisis Response Manager, for Navigate Response – the strongest global network of crisis communications support for the maritime industry. At Navigate, Kyle manages the media response for numerous shipping incidents and delivers crisis media training for clients. Prior to joining Navigate Response, Kyle conducted research on international maritime policy, and worked in emergency communications for government natural disaster response.

Imagine a worst-case scenario: someone on your ship has died, the crew have been taken hostage, or an employee is suffering a severe mental health crisis. Regardless of the emergency, your focus, as a manager, will almost certainly be on controlling the situation. But bad news still needs to be delivered – especially to impacted families.

As a crisis communicator in the maritime industry, I often see leaders struggle to find the right words to convey tragedy, distress or concern – and rightly so it’s not an easy job. But informing families is vital to any basic response.

It doesn’t take long to find a graveyard of embattled business leaders who derailed their career, in part, due to their poor communication with families: Denis Muilenberg of Boeing, Tony Hayward of British Petroleum, and Edward Burkhardt of Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railroad – just to name a few.

Safe to say the politics of response rests firmly on family relations.

From a media standpoint, this makes sense. Families are an appealing angle into any story – they provide the personal lens that lets audiences relate. At the same time, they also absorb undue shock and emotional distress in crises. So, if a family feels abandoned, ignored, deceived or any other range of emotions in their vulnerable state – they may be inclined to use their media spotlight to lash out. In these circumstances, the David v. Goliath narrative is far too appetizing for the public to neglect: ‘Family of deceased decries carelessness of powerful corporation’. As evident from the examples above, this reception can and often does lead to public embarrassment, bureaucratic interference and institutional change for involved organisations.

So, for leaders encountering a crisis, the task is clear: earn the trust of impacted families or flounder.

But how do you even start the conversation?

If done in a hasty fashion, you risk unnecessarily distressing people in an already uncomfortable situation. But if done too late, you risk allowing rumors to run wild. Or worse, allowing the media to break the news to families.

Similar risks exist for your chosen style of communication. If the news is relayed too bluntly you may come across as insensitive. But by being too careful you may be misunderstood.

It’s difficult to prescribe hard fast rules for conveying bad news, but there are some key things to think about.

Are you prepared? Rehearse what you want to say a few times. Nothing is worse than mumbling and stammering through the delivery of what may be the worst news of someone’s life. And stabilize yourself emotionally – you won’t be able to deliver bad news in a sympathetic or effective way if you aren’t emotionally stable yourself.

How do you plan to deliver the news? Choose your communication pathway wisely – make it as personal as possible. In-person delivery is the best as it signifies that you care and gives space for the complex interpretation of human emotion. If in-person is not an option, then video conferencing or telephone will have to suffice. Never relay bad news via email.

Be prepared and stabilise yourself emotionally - these are tough conversations © Shutterstock

What type of tone should you adopt? While unchecked emotions can make the situation worse, emotional reservedness may give an impression of carelessness. It’s important that you have the emotional bandwidth to match the seriousness of your message – with the appropriate facial expressions, body language and vocal tone.

Expect a challenge: be prepared for backlash and volatility. Hard hitting news can illicit the most extraordinary of psychological reactions. As the bearer of that news, you need to be ready to respond in a non-escalatory manner – even if the conversation is uncomfortable or adverse. That could mean emotionally supporting family members through shock, denial, guilt, and potentially anger to ensure your communication is received in a fair and cordial manner.

Be brief and go slow – don’t overcrowd the message with unnecessary details and confusing language. Speak clearly and slowly so the message is easy to understand. Also be honest – don’t downplay or shy away from the facts. Nobody wants to hear that their loved one is ‘kinda, sorta’ in the hospital. At the same time, give the listener time to make comments and ask questions. This provides them with space to receive more details if they want to.

If you cannot address the families yourself, then designate a family liaison, who can build a relationship and rapport with the family. The family liaison needs to have formal training, experience or a natural skillset to handle the range of emotional reactions that can arise during these tough conversations.

Once contact has been established, be constant and consistent in your communication. You – as the shipping company – should be the leading source of information for the families involved. If you lag behind the media, social media or other third parties in providing updates, it can severely undermine the families’ confidence in you. Even if your company has no new information to relay, constant check-ins help build trust and remind families that you value and support them. The messaging also needs to be consistent. If two families hear a different story about the same incident, your credibility and trustworthiness will be severely compromised.

Depending on the crisis, families risk being thrust into a media circus. Without formal training and in a raw emotional state, they can easily be overwhelmed by public attention. Make sure you offer support in dealing with the media. And if you, personally, have to talk to the media before you’ve had time to inform the families, it is critical that you don’t release the names of the deceased or injured individuals.

Finally, don’t forget to ask the family what you can do to support them.The last thing anyone wants is for impacted families to become pawns in a PR game.

At the end of the day, communicating with families during a crisis cannot be a ‘check the box’ exercise. The process has to be genuine, legitimate and heartfelt. But never underestimate the power of constant, supportive contact – people remember those that ‘stuck by them’.

If you have been affected by the issues discussed here and would like to talk to someone, ISWAN's SeafarerHelp helpline is available 24/7/365 to support seafarers and their families:

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