Most organisations, if not all, claim that their people are their most valuable asset.
“At Company X, people are our greatest asset.”
You have probably heard that slogan at some point or seen it enshrined in a company’s brand manifesto.
And yet when a crisis strikes, some organisations find themselves guilty of paying lip service. Their crisis responses plans, the ones that have been meticulously prepared and rehearsed, do not address the human or emotional aspects of a crisis.
In a world where organisations are judged by their balance sheet or the size of their operations, it is easy to forget that crises involve and impact people. This is especially so when a crisis does not involve direct injury or loss of life.
During the 2021 Suez Canal obstruction and the media blitz that ensued, the news coverage focused on economic losses due to maritime trade disruption, the impact on oil prices and the domino effect on global supply chains.
While it was, at that time, the biggest maritime story of the year, it became a global story that captured public imagination not because of the estimated US$9.6 billion worth of trade that was disrupted, but because it spawned a slew of viral internet memes which the public could identify and resonate with.
Social media were quick to put a human perspective to the incident. A Twitter account with the handle @SuezDiggerGuy, "Guy With the Digger at Suez Canal," provided comic relief and an outlet for schadenfreude. The account has amassed more than 60,000 followers since its inception in March 2021, some of whom commiserated with @SuezDiggerGuy as they could see parallels in everyday life.
It was interesting to see that social media, long vilified in the digital age, was somewhat vindicated during the incident. We saw mainly benign light-hearted humour in the form of crowdsourced internet memes. Indeed, public perception could have taken on a different trajectory if the initial social media chatter had been more negative or toxic in nature. Once negativity prevails, it tends to gain traction very quickly on social media.
As a case study, the Suez Canal obstruction provided lessons for crisis communications. It was a reminder that during a crisis, people and their emotions can greatly shape public perception and the overall crisis narrative.
When emotions run high, organisations should seek to connect with their audience on an emotional level. Once the emotional connection is established, it becomes easier to present your key messages to your audience and tell them what the nuts and bolts of your response plan are.
If the emotional connection is weak, your audience is vulnerable to being swayed by alternative narratives put forward by your critics. When that happens, an organisation loses its legitimacy and voice in the crisis narrative.