This is the fourth and final article in a multi-part series on “victim management” in the wake of large-scale disasters and crises. Previous articles in the series can be found here: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.
The Vocabulary Of Victimization
As any seasoned investigator will tell you, if appropriately questioned and listened to, the language people use in adverse circumstances can be diagnostic of their situation. In the case of victims, there is specific vocabulary that crops up constantly that validates the fact that they truly are victims of the circumstances as they claim to be. The language victims use to illustrate their circumstances frequently includes the following terms:
- Anger: betrayal, disbelief, dread, anxiousness, anxiety.
- Frustration: powerlessness, helplessness, fearfulness.
- Inadequacy: self-blame, agonizing, lonely, luckless, worrying.
- Betrayal: trust no one, no one to trust, irritable, anxious.
Victim Behavior Is Predictable: Key Indicators
Victims’ behaviors are driven by extraordinarily powerful emotions. Being a victim is, in my judgment, the most highly emotionalized state a human being can achieve. To the observer, many of these individuals seem to be so caught up in their circumstances that they are acting irrationally. Most critical incident response experts recoil at this characterization. But those in corporations and organizations who are creating victims tend to look at victims’ behavior this way. In the minds of the perpetrator, the victim is behaving this way intentionally to gain power and compensation.
This is one of the extraordinary realities of being a victim — their behavior comes across as an irrational state. Perhaps the single most important reason victims are created is because those trying to help them are approaching them rationally when the victims themselves are emotionally energized and intellectually confused.
In fact, the behavior of victims is often quite puzzling. For example, friendly gestures are often interpreted as threats. The interests of someone trying to help may be perceived as intrusive or as a betrayal. Well-meant advice, even sensible advice, is often perceived as insulting or controlling. There is a pattern of victim behaviors beyond those that are clearly recognizable that need to be understood as a part of dealing with those who are victimized and for preventing additional injured, threatened individuals from becoming victims.
The Three Simultaneous States Of Victimization
Victims become intellectually deaf. When people are victimized, the first thing that happens is our inner voice begins shouting, interpreting what happened, how stupid we were, and how careless we probably had to be to get into this kind of jam. Our outer voice (the one everyone else can hear) is telling others about what we are suffering, what is happening to us, and warning others about avoiding what happened to us. This is what often makes dealing with victims so difficult. Victims instantly become self-absorbed and self-focused on the problems and afflictions that being a victim causes. They hear little. Their inner voice continuously rehearses their problems and circumstances. They use their outer voice to complain, whine, and warn. They notice little, and they are primarily stimulated by additional negative information about their circumstances or similar ideas and by people trying to help them.
Victims are emotionally engaged 24-7. Put yourself in their place. If you are an adult, you have experienced being victimized by something or someone. Once it happened to you, you were consumed by it, at least for a time. It is this 24-7 focus that gives victims their power. Their relentless suffering and communication about it can overcome even the most empathetic organizational efforts, for a while.
Everything is a question. When the victims’ inner voice and outer voice are working at the same time, these individuals are incapable of taking in new information. So they ask questions. Victims generally, and repeatedly, ask the same questions, like “Who’s responsible?” “Why did this happen to me?” “Why couldn’t this have been prevented?” “Why didn’t someone head off this problem before it happened?” “Who is going to pay all my bills while I suffer these problems?” “Why didn’t you warn me if you knew this could happen?”
Despite the responder’s most humane efforts to respond, until victims can focus on their own recovery, they tend to ask the same questions repeatedly. Responders and helpers must learn to answer these questions repeatedly until the victim can absorb the answer.
Victim-Creating Perpetrator Behaviors Are Also Predictable
Victim-creating behaviors cause most litigation. They are identifiable and preventable. Here are seven victim-causing perpetrator behaviors I refer to as “Profiles in Jell-O” (a pun on the title of President John F. Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage):
- Denial: Refusal to accept that something bad has happened and that there may be victims or others directly affected who require prompt public acknowledgment. There is denial that the crisis is serious; denial that the media or public has any real stake or interest in whatever the problem happens to be; denial that the situation should take anyone’s time in the organization except those in top management specifically tasked to deal with it; denial that the problem is of any particular consequence to the organization provided no one talks about it except those directly involved. “Let’s not overreact.” “Let’s keep it to ourselves.” “We don’t need to tell the people in public affairs and public relations just yet. They’ll just blab it all over.” “If we don’t talk, no one will know.”
- Victim confusion: Irritable reaction to reporters, employees, angry neighbors, whistle-blowers, and victims’ families when they call asking for help, information, explanation, or apology. “Hey! We’re victims too.” Symptoms include time-wasting explanations of how “we’ve been such good corporate citizens,” how “we’ve contributed to the opera [the Little League, the shelter program].” “We don’t deserve to be treated this badly.” “Mistakes can happen, even to the best of companies.” “We’re only human.” When these behaviors don’t pass the community, media, or victim straight-face test or are criticized or laughed at, a stream of defensive threats follows: “If the government enforces new regulations, they will destroy our competitiveness.” “If we have to close this plant, it’s their fault.” “It’s the only decision we can make.” “If this decision stands, many more will suffer needlessly.” “If we didn’t do this, someone else would.” “We didn’t tell them because we wanted to spare them the additional fear and agony.”
- Testosterosis: Looking for ways to hit back, to “slap some sense” into “them” rather than deal with problems and emotional circumstances. Managers may refuse to give in or to respect those who have a difference of opinion or a legitimate issue. Another testosterosis indicator is the use of military terminology — tactics, strategy, enemy, beachhead, attack, retreat, and truce — all of which trigger a more insensitive, macho internal environment. This command-and-control mentality sets the stage for predictable errors, omissions, and mistakes and creates resistance to what is truly needed.
- Arrogance: Reluctance to apologize, express concern or empathy, or take appropriate responsibility. “If we do that, we’ll be liable.” “We’ll look weak.” “We’ll set bad precedents.” “There’ll be copycats.” “We’ll legitimize bad actions or people.” “We can’t give them what they don’t deserve.” Arrogance is contempt for adversaries, sometimes even for victims, and almost always for the news media. It is the opposite of empathy.
- Blame shifting, search for the guilty: Attempts to identify traitors, turncoats, troublemakers, those who push back, and the unconvinceables to shift the blame back to the perpetrators. “They simply weren’t hurt enough to warrant the demands they’re making.” “The allegations are outrageous, not provable, and self-serving.” “Obviously, these people have their own agenda, and we have become the victim of it.”
- Fear of exposure: Fear that arises when those who should have been communicating recognize that a tremendous gap has been created in their credibility and in their ability to be trusted and that it will be nearly impossible to explain their way back again for having been silent, or only minimally communicative, for such a long period of time. This fear is reflected in angry, callous responses to bad news coverage, employee animosity, and humiliating, embarrassing, and damaging questions by the media and victims, such as “What did you know, and when did you know it?” “What have you done, and when did you do it?” Angry, callous responses create even more victims or harden the attitudes of existing victims. And attack plaintiff attorneys line up.
- Management by whining around: The organizational tendency to talk only about its own pain, expense, and inconvenience when the decision is made to make some accommodation and move toward settlement. Whining makes victims, employees, neighbors, and the government angrier and the media more aggressively negative, creating even more plaintiffs and accusations. Whining is never an effective strategic tool or strategy.
Serious Victim-Creating Management Errors
Silence is the most toxic strategy. It empowers and energizes victims. Where there’s trouble, lawyers routinely keep their clients from talking, and managers and leaders would rather avoid conveying negative news. The result is a toxic silence where there should be robust conversations and engagement. The most predictable casualty of silence during these major adverse events will usually be the chief executive of the perpetrating organization, and perhaps others. Silence creates gaps in the unfolding sequence of events. These silences are simply not acceptable, and they turn out to be impossible to explain with a straight face once they have occurred. Silence negatively magnifies every mistake and corrective action.
Failure to engage creates victims. Managers often believe and say that if they answer the questions of “these people” or comment on “their issues,” they give victims power and recognition they may not deserve and will hurt the organization in the long run. This is devastatingly stupid thinking. Victims come packed with the power to change the course of an organization and even reorganize and replace its top management. A single victim, driven by the negative or nonresponse of perpetrators and callous organizations, and probably ignored by the very people who should be communicating, can have the power, the determination, and the commitment to make important changes in organizations, political structures, communities of interest, and sometimes even a culture. Perpetrators can decrease the power of victims through simple, sensible, positive, constructive, and prompt response to victims’ needs.
Stalling, delaying, and acting timidly create victims. Speed beats smart every time. Waiting to act until an appropriate level of factual information is available is a foolish decision. The longer an organization waits to do something that needs to be done, the more likely it is that whatever it does will be insufficient, unfocused, off-point, outside the target zone, and defensive. Excuses will have to be made for the resulting delay. The metric of my experience is that as a crisis persists, responders spend 50% of their energy and 25% of their resources fixing the bad decisions made yesterday. Having said that, the most worrisome decisions and poorest strategies are those that require waiting to do something until more is known. One of the most significant ways to reduce the production of victims is to do meaningful things immediately. It is essential to your credibility and to the level of public and victim trust, even if mistaken and likely to be changed. Action beats inaction every time. Faster is smarter.
What Victims Need
Victims have four powerful needs: validation, visibility, vindication, and extreme empathy/apology. If these four needs are provided promptly — preferably by the perpetrator — victims will more easily move through their state of victimization and be less likely to call or respond to attorneys or the media, or even to call attention to themselves. The reality is that if the perpetrator fails to meet their needs or does so only partially, victims will find ways to provide for their own needs, often at the perpetrator’s reputational expense.
Victims require validation that they are indeed victims. This recognition is best rendered by the perpetrator. If not, public groups, government, or the news media will do it. Victims will seek it. “I’m not crazy, this really did happen, and someone else is responsible.” Victims rarely sue because they are angry, because their life has been changed dramatically, or because lots of plaintiff attorneys are chasing them around. Generally, victims sue because their situation is not acknowledged and their feelings are ignored, belittled, or trivialized. If they are prevented from publicly discussing what happened to them in meaningful ways, and no one is taking prompt constructive action to prevent similarly situated individuals, animals, or living systems from suffering the same fate, victims will be looking to take more aggressive action.
Visibility involves a platform from which victims can describe their pain and warn others. Preferably, again, the platform should come from the perpetrator or a credible independent organization that can help victims explain what happened for the purpose of both talking it out and convincing others to avoid similar risks or take appropriate preventive action. Some victimization lasts a lifetime. In the case of major disasters, invariably there will be monuments, remembrance sites, even living memorials that victims, survivors, and responders visit, talk about, and rely on. These are permanent visible symbols that recognize, redescribe, and remind the world of the suffering and sacrifice that took place. Name any major disaster dating back hundreds of years, and there is a memorial someplace, perhaps a place of worship, a graveyard, even some extraordinary monuments. And even to this day you’ll find tourists, relatives, survivors, and responders at these places, visiting and coping.
Vindication occurs when victims take credit for any actions the perpetrator takes to ensure that whatever happened to them will never be allowed to happen to others. Victims will describe these remedial actions and decisions as proof that they had an impact and that their suffering will now benefit others because of these new decisions, actions, and practices. Let it happen; let them take credit. It’s part of their rehabilitation and part of the restoration of the perpetrator’s reputation.
Victims need extreme empathy/apology. Apology is the atomic energy of empathy. If you want to stop bad news almost dead in its tracks, apologize. If you want to generally stop litigation and move to settlement, apologize. If you want to dramatically decrease the newsworthiness of almost any adverse situation, apologize. If you want to demonstrate that you truly care about the victims or the victimization you caused, apologize. While the lawyers may strongly advise against any form of apology because, under law, an apology is an admission, there is a growing body of evidence and data to demonstrate that apologies, promptly and sincerely delivered, virtually eliminate the potential for litigation. This means that while the lawyer’s advice needs to be listened to, if the victim refuses to sue, it may be time to find a lawyer to negotiate an effective settlement rather than pursuing a futile effort to deny what the victim needs most — acknowledgment through settlement.
Apology Strategies Remain Controversial
Perhaps the most dramatic ongoing example of the power of apology is happening in the U.S. health care industry. Forced by their insurance carriers, these institutions have learned the power of apology or of extreme empathy. Evidence grows every single day that apologies eliminate the desire to litigate. Thirty-four U.S. states have “I’m Sorry” laws in place to protect physicians and health care workers who apologize during malpractice litigation. Such apologies are inadmissible as evidence in setting damages. The exact statute terms do vary state by state. Even more states have similar laws in place that make voluntary apologies at automobile accidents inadmissible as evidence for setting liability and damage awards. For more helpful information on the power of apologies, here are some important references:
- A pioneering article published in Annals of Internal Medicine in December 1999 outlined a litigation risk reduction strategy instituted by the Veterans Administration (Kraman and Hamm 1999). In this strategy, when mistakes, errors, and adverse outcomes have occurred, apologies are offered, and the patient is then kept in the information loop and constantly updated.
- The National Law Journal (nlj.com) publishes articles on this issue a couple of times every year, following hospitals in Michigan, Texas, and other locations who are studying the impact of apologies on the reduction of litigation, risk, and liability.
- Sorryworks.net is a website that chronicles the successes and failures of the use of apology throughout the health care industry.
- Advice on how to apologize is available at theperfectapology.com, or simply search for “apology” at your favorite search engine.
- CrisisCare.com is an organization specializing in victim response that provides assistance to companies and organizations worldwide.
Fake And Phony Apologies Turn Out To Be Humiliating, Embarrassing Failures
If an organization wants to make matters worse, the easiest way, since victims, employees, customers, regulators, and public policymakers are all expecting a sincere apology, is to fake one or to deny that one is even needed. There is probably a one-credit course in management school on apology avoidance strategies. Such a course would teach four lame but often used strategies. Strategy 1 is self-forgiveness:
- It’s an industry problem; we’re not the only ones.
- This isn’t the first time this has happened, and it won’t be the last.
- Let’s not blow this out of proportion.
- We couldn’t have known.
- It’s not systemic.
- Don’t our good deeds count for something?
Strategy 2 is self-talk (excuses we use that only we believe, but others doubt immediately):
- It’s an isolated incident.
- It couldn’t have been done by our people.
- Not very many were involved.
- If we don’t do it, someone else will.
- Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Strategy 3 is self-delusion:
- It’s not our fault.
- It’s not our problem.
- We can’t be responsible for everything.
- It won’t happen again.
- It was only one death, in one place, at one time. Why is everyone so angry?
- Life can’t exist without risk.
Finally, Strategy 4 is lying:
- I don’t know.
- We’ve never done that.
- It hasn’t happened before.
- It can’t happen to you.
- We won’t give up without a fight.
- We are not crooks.
- We did not have sex with that woman.
Apology avoidance is ingrained in management and very difficult to combat. However, when the situation arises, you should share these avoidance strategies with top executives and their advisers to inoculate them against using them. Let me warn you, though: The urge for avoidance is so strong that top managers will begin thinking up new strategies and excuses, beyond your most recent list, immediately. As you hear new avoidance language, build another list and circulate it immediately.
The Seven Major Lessons In This Series
- The news will be bad from the beginning. This bad news will ripen badly for a time regardless of how aggressive, constructive, credible, and truthful your actions, decisions, and behaviors are.
- It is the number-one task of disaster management to end the production of victims at the earliest possible time. Speed beats smart every time.
- Managing the victim dimension is more crucial than even the most creative, constructive, and effective engineering strategy for recovery.
- Even the most brilliant, comprehensive, effective response, if communicated poorly, with hesitation and timidity, arrogance, or annoyance, will be characterized forever as a poorly executed, timid, clumsy, arrogant response.
- Silence is toxic, even while searching for or exploring appropriate response options. Your brightest idea and potential success advantage will be lost, even derided, if you hesitate to speak and act promptly. Gaps in communication are always interpreted to mean that you are hiding or covering up, and those questions or assumptions tend to last forever.
- Perpetrators can decrease the power of victims through simple, sensible, positive, constructive, and prompt response to victim needs.
- Apology is the atomic energy of empathy. Failing to apologize promptly or, worse, faking or feigning apology will create even more victims, critics, damage, and embarrassing questions.
Material in this series was adapted with permission from the book Lukaszewski on Crisis Communication: What Your CEO Needs to Know About Reputation Risks and Crisis Management (c2013).
Kraman, S. S., and Hamm, G. (1999). “Risk management: Extreme honesty may be the best policy.” Ann. Internal Medi., 131, 963–967.
Lukaszewski, J. E. (2005). Executive action: Crisis communication plan components and models, Vol. 3, Crisis Communication Management Readiness, Public Relations Society of America, New York.
Lukaszewski, J. E., Lukaszewski on Crisis Communication: What Your CEO Needs to Know About Reputation Risks and Crisis Management (c2013), Rothstein Associates, Inc., Brookfield, CT.
VandePol, R., and Beyer, C. E. (2009). “Crisis management: The critical human element.” CFMA Build. Profits, 27(5), 1–8.