“Have you ever done any preemptive planning to deal with/address/respond to potential loss (death) of members/workers within an organisation? If so, or if you have any resources you can direct me to it would be appreciated.”
That was the question posed to me by a relative who works for a public service in Canada.
And it got me thinking. The general principles of managing a crisis can be applied, with some additional regard to the particular sensitivities of a death in service.
Given the situation facing many organisations at the moment, with the terrible loss of key workers in the NHS and other frontline services, I thought it may be worth sharing my response more widely.
Here is some advice to help you you deal with any media attention that may arise following the death in service of one of your team:
- Don’t name the person who has died before the family know, and be guided by them about what details they’re happy to be released. Impress on others in the organisation they need to be careful what they tell people/share both in person and online so the person isn’t inadvertently identified, causing more distress to the family.
- Provide whatever support you can to the family in terms of media relations. They won’t be prepared for any media interest, and at such a stressful time, the last thing they need is to be bombarded by calls/emails from the press. Take on that burden on their behalf, so you might consider allocating a press officer to help them field any approaches from journalists.
- There is an acronym in crisis communications which helps focuses your responses – CARE: Care, Action (what are you doing), Reassure, Example (something that will resonate and connect with your audience – eg, I worked with xxx closely on xxx project, and she/he was … ).
- Always put people above the bottom line, and to show that you care. If it’s a colleague who has died, people will naturally be upset. Anyone responding to the situation to the media or the general public should show this, both in any written communications or if they’re doing an interview. Show concern and compassion for the family, though certainly in the UK, the phrase “our thoughts are with …” has become really hackneyed and doesn’t sound sincere. An alternative is “we can’t imagine what the family are going through”, “our first priority at this time is supporting x’s family”
- Tone of voice is crucial, especially if someone is talking about a death or injury. Anyone formally responding to a death has to sound sincere, and not as if they’re just repeating lines they’ve been handed by the comms team.
- It’s good to have a human face – assign someone senior to become the public face of any communications about the situation, and make sure they will be able to respond appropriately.
- Be aware that the media will be trying to find out the identity of the person who has died and information about them (particularly if the death is in the line of duty, or due to some problem/lack/issue by your organisation. EG, if there has been a suicide or accident of work). They’ll be digging around neighbours, friends, contacts, and with social media, they have far more resources at their disposal so will be searching their online profiles and using any old posts by them, or others.
- Pay tribute, and don’t apportion blame – particularly not to the deceased.
- Never say “no comment” to the press as this makes it look as if you are hiding something. If you can’t give too many details about what has happened, find something else to say: “You can understand why we can’t reveal the identity of the person who has died, before we have spoken to their family.” “When someone dies in these circumstances, this automatically triggers an investigation which will examine xyz/which will be run by external authorities …” “we are co-operating with the authorities …”
- If any inquiry or investigation is warranted, then make it clear very quickly that this will happen (the Action element of CARE).
The added complication for my relative was the psychological impact on colleagues of a death due to Covid-19, and the potential for widespread absenteeism as a result. This means the response from the organisation needs to be very carefully thought out to allay people’s fears and reassure them that everything is being done to keep them safe.