Managing The Victim Dimension Of Large-Scale Disasters

In the wake of a disaster, your destiny and reputation will be defined by how you communicate and your treatment of victims far more than by any technical solution you may accomplish or invent. This article was originally written for civil engineers, but we believe its principles are applicable to a much wider audience.

This is the first article in a multi-part series on "victim management" in the wake of large-scale disasters and crises. Subsequent articles in the series can be found here: Part 2Part 3, and Part 4. When disaster strikes, we do get glimpses of the physical and infrastructure damage, but the news and most of the pictures are about the victims. If anything, while the broken facility, structures, and topography of the land or substructure of the earth do get talked about, it is the relentless pictures, descriptions, interviews, commentary, and desperation of the victims that determine the coverage, the public consciousness, and the legacy of the tragedy. The most glaring deficiency in the crisis and business recovery plans I review each year is the absence of a victim management strategy. Based on just over 30 years as a senior adviser to top management in crisis situations, it seems to me that almost every function in an organization in crisis focuses on its own activities or those directly allied to it and leaves the question of victim management to someone else. My major career focus has been management communication and leadership recovery, always within the context of some serious, urgent, or contentious situation. I noticed early in my career that the main drivers of contention, confrontation, and conflict, aside from the news media, were generally the victims of the events at hand. They got the air time, they got the print space, and they got the attention of government. Yet managements generally treated victims as perpetrators, malingerers, and people in search of cash. But I also noticed that victims, even more than critics, tended to dominate the outcomes of the crisis and problems I was working on. Victims had enormous power. In 1999, an extraordinary article appeared in the December issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine, "Risk Management: Extreme Honesty May Be the Best Policy" (Kraman and Hamm 1999). This paper described a 10-year study carried out by the Veterans Administration Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, for the purpose of determining how to resolve patient-related incidents in ways that might reduce litigation by patients and their families. In the intervening years, a lot has been written on the subject of extreme empathy, candor, and apology, mostly driven by insurance companies who have discovered that these empathetic techniques, promptly applied, can reduce and in many cases eliminate litigation and speed settlement. Today the most crucial component of all crisis response, victim management, remains missing from most responses. Clearly, it is possible to respond to crisis with a nearly textbook technical performance. But failure to promptly, humanely, and empathetically see that victims' needs are met will eclipse a flawless response, and instead the response will be remembered for its angry survivors, relatives, public officials, occasionally competitors, but almost always the critics, and the emotional voices of the victims. The two most crucial ingredients of crisis management are effective and accurate communication and then prompt resolution of the issues surrounding victims. This series familiarizes and sensitizes the technical expert reader with the extraordinary impact and emotional power victims bring to any crisis situation. Some important techniques and approaches will be discussed, including
  1. The nature of victimization, and why victims have so much power;
  2. The behavior of management and its advisers that triggers, initiates, or prolongs victimization;
  3. What victims need, along with constructive strategies that can resolve these different situations quickly and often avoid litigation;
  4. Who can be victims — people, animals, and living systems;
  5. Causes of victimization;
  6. What victims feel and why they tend to act and remain so upset;
  7. Three crucial states of the victim experience — intellectual deafness, 24-7 immersion, and endless questioning; and
  8. What victims need — validation, visibility, vindication, and extreme empathy/apology.
While this topic may seem far from the domain of the civil engineer and civil engineering issues in crisis, just remember Hurricane Katrina (2005), the 2007 I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis, the 2011 tsunamis in Japan and Indonesia, the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, and even the Titanic disaster of 1912. All were clearly engineering and recovery challenges. However, the big stories, the lasting stories, were always about the victims. The public memory of these events is rarely about the details of design failure or faulty construction. We remember the faces and the turmoil of the victims. Had the I-35W bridge collapsed without any impact on animals, people, or the surrounding environment, it would have been an interesting, probably 1- or 2-day story. Going forward, of all the disaster-related litigation, it is the litigation concerning restitution and resolution of victim issues that lasts the longest, costs the most, and has the highest profile. Your destiny and reputation will be defined by how you communicate and your treatment of victims far more than by any engineering solution you may accomplish or invent. It's About Victims There are seven powerful reasons why managing victims is so difficult:
  1. Victim behavior is emotional and, some would say, irrational.
  2. Management is reluctant to promptly assume blame or responsibility, or even admit that errors have occurred.
  3. Management's obsession with results over something that is clearly emotional, and by and large immeasurable, forces them to appear antivictim, emotionless, and cold.
  4. Management is poorly equipped to deal with emotional circumstances, given that training in anthropology, ethics, and managing emotional circumstances is almost nonexistent in engineering and business schools and in business life.
  5. Expectations and performance measures of managers and management advisers are generally based on rational factors and leave little room for imprecise and often suspect emotional circumstances.
  6. Management relies too heavily on peer pressure and legal advice to avoid apologizing or even expressing extreme empathy.
  7. Managers and leaders responding with empathy and sympathy may be criticized as soft or sentimental.
To begin our discussion, we need three important definitions:
  1. Crisis: I define a crisis as a people-stopping, show-stopping, product-stopping, reputation-defining, and trust-busting event that creates victims and/or explosive visibility. Crises are caused by human beings intentionally, through commission or omission, and sometimes unintentionally, through accident, negligence, or ignorance.
  2. Disasters: Disasters can be defined as extraordinary circumstances generally caused by forces beyond the control of persons who could be identified and blamed. Disasters are generally natural events beyond human control — tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and incredibly powerful storms. Disasters produce victims, but unless responders act negatively, carelessly, or callously, there is far less potential for blame, bad news, or mindless victimization and collateral damage.
  3. Disaster transformed into crisis: What transforms a disaster into a crisis are responders and leaders who foul up the management of victims.
Katrina was just a hurricane, a very big one, before it became a crisis for responders, government, and the environment. The I-35W collapse was a rather mindless engineering mishap, except that people were injured and killed as a part of the circumstances, and the drama associated with their rescue and recovery transformed that event into a crisis. The extraordinary devastation in Japan from earthquake-driven tsunamis in 2011 exposed extraordinary deficiencies in their readiness and recovery systems and especially in their nuclear facilities. In contrast, the massive devastation by tsunamis in Indonesia, in the same year, triggered a worldwide response. Even though thousands died and many more were left homeless and injured, the extraordinary response and the country's own efforts really allowed this event to remain very solidly in the disaster category. One contradictory lesson is, as will be illustrated further, that even when victims appear to be treated reasonably, almost any disaster can quickly become a crisis. First Response Priorities To give this discussion context, it's important to understand the power of first response priorities. First response priorities as executed can mitigate reputational damage. Successful crisis (victim-producing) response (victim reduction) is based on sensible, focused, constructive, and positive response option execution, fundamentally sound decision making, and action. Ignoring or shortcutting any of these priorities is what can turn a relatively minor incident into a major, long-term, uncontrollable, reputation-defining, and persistently negative series of events. Model Grand First Response Strategy
  • Response Priority 1: Stop the production of victims. Identify problems and set response priorities. Resolve the problem promptly; begin addressing key issues. If it's leaking, foaming, smoking, burning, or otherwise creating victims, deal with the underlying problem first. Failure to stop producing victims makes your crisis response, no matter how competent, look weak, timid, clumsy, and, in fact, incompetent.
  • Response Priority 2: Manage the victim dimension. It is victims and others who are directly affected that cause incidents to become crises. Be prepared to understand the dynamics of victims and anticipate those dynamics as the response process proceeds.
  • Response Priority 3: Communicate with employees. Every employee becomes a communicator when something adverse happens. Whether there are 10 employees or 10,000 employees, when questionable activity or crisis occurs, everyone affected becomes a communicator. Inform, educate, and script employees promptly, using brief but frequent, short statements. The counterintuitive result of this strategy is that employees are generally far quieter and will allow management to move forward with its response.
  • Response Priority 4: Contact and assist those indirectly affected. Every crisis causes damage, injury, or fear in a large number of individuals who are indirectly affected, including friends, families, relatives, neighbors, regulators, governments, allied organizations, and interest groups. Your emergency may affect other agencies, or your problems may taint your relationship with an ally, allied organization, or interest group. Inform them very promptly.
  • Response Priority 5: Deal with the self-appointed, the self-anointed, and the medias, new and legacy. Today every crisis brings out individuals and organizations with their own agendas. Any crisis presents the opportunity to activate these agendas. Yes, the legacy news media can still bring substantial attention to a crisis and to the perpetrator. But today, everyone can be a reporter, with the potential to cover any crisis story from his or her own perspective, and it is the victims that will gather the attention, often using the smartphone production centers of the new-media journalists.
The key concept to remember here is that each of these five steps must be activated in the first hour (the so-called golden hour), or first two hours, of any crisis. Those not activated will cause additional victims, questions, and misunderstandings, which the perpetrator will have to deal with as the crisis unfolds. In other words, act fast, because speed beats smart, every time. This series deals with the first two priorities: stopping the production of victims and managing the victim dimension. This series first appeared as an article in Leadership and Management in Engineering, a publication of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

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