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24th July 2015

It’s all just talk: The power of connection


When journalists report on a tragedy, such as a plane crash, they usually include how many Brits (or locally relevant nationality) were killed or injured. In fact, it often appears more important that two British citizens were injured than that a dozen other people were killed. Similarly, when Brits are incarcerated overseas, the British media usually tells their sad tale, but when foreigners are accused of illegal activity in the UK there are often demands for harsher punishments.

There appears to be a double standard; ever wonder why?

In 1986, the social scientists Henri Tajfel and John Turner proposed that such unequal responses are explained by the human desire to identify with a group. They called their theory ‘Social Identity Theory’ and it’s become one of the most influential ideas in social psychology. Put most simply, the theory suggests that we all seek to form relationships with groups who are like ourselves and distance ourselves from groups who are different – think racism.

Group identities are not fixed and can be influenced. Whether people identify with your company or see you as an enemy will be largely determined by how you behave in the early stages of any incident.

Get people to identify with you, and everything else will be much easier!

So, how do you convince people to identify with you? There are countless ways and every situation will be different, but the basics are simple. Let’s look at a fictional example.

A 14,000 dwt bulker runs aground along the French Riviera and ruptures one of her bunker tanks. Oil is visible in the water and small amounts start washing up on the shore. The vessel is owned by an Asian company and managed by a small northern European shipmanagement company. The French media flocks to the scene and the story leads in all the French outlets.

Response 1: Failing to recognize the power of social identity, the Asian company takes point with the media and issues a short statement only in English that does not mention any of the French agencies, personal or companies responding to the incident. A spokesperson in China provides a couple short interviews, but gets confused about the French coastal geography and reveals that he’s never actually been to Europe – this becomes a trending joke on twitter. Recognizing the opportunity to score points with the local electorate, French politicians start demanding that the company do more.

Response 2: The companies involved are getting excellent media handling advice. A local spokesperson with some media training is identified to represent the companies. Statements are issued in both French and English and regular updates are provided as new information becomes available. Doing interviews in French and close to the scene, the spokesperson speaks of her personal connection to the affected area. The companies actively engage social media to praise the efforts of the local French agencies, respond to comments and questions, and form connections with local politicians and other relevant groups.

Put sided-by-sided, it’s obvious which approach will work better, but why?

None of this has anything to do with the actual clean up or salvage operations. This is all, quite literally, just ‘talk.’ The thing is, ‘talk’ matters, because communication is how we form connections, and connections are one of the most powerful determinants of behaviour. By engaging with a local audience you will form a connection with them and this will reduce the likelihood that they seek legal, regulatory, or financial retribution against your company.


Dustin Eno
Crisis Response Manager

T: +44 (0)20 3326 8467

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