the art of sensitive communications

Choosing the words: the language of fear and grief

Regular readers of this blog know that we comment on the communication lessons of public events, rather than the events themselves.

The terrorist attacks in Paris and Bamako, and the threats in Brussels are horrific and a challenge to modern societies on many fronts.

The communication challenge

One of those challenges falls to the political leaders – the figureheads – who need to speak to the public sometimes while violent events are still happening or very soon afterwards. Behind the figurehead may be a speechwriter. It must be one of the most stressful jobs in the world to write a speech under great time pressure, knowing that when delivered millions will be watching and analysing every nuance.

In the last week it was the turn of President Francois Hollande of France and in Mali, President Ibrahim Boubacar Këita.

Hollande TV statement

In his television address during the attacks in Paris, President Hollande stuck to mostly factual information.  He spoke about attacks of an ‘unprecedented scale’, declared a state of emergency and said the borders had been closed. He tried to be reassuring, saying ‘We know where the threats are coming from. We know who the criminals are. We know who the terrorists are’. And he appealed for calm, ending with:  ‘Long live the Republic, Long live France.’ Full transcript here.

In difficult circumstances he was calm and informative – but to be critical – his performance was cold and did not reassure.

France ‘at war’

Three days later, addressing a rare joint meeting of the upper and lower houses of parliament in the Palace of Versailles, the President announced ‘France is at war’ . Full 39 minute speech here.  (Thanks to those who pointed out that the actual quote was here – initially I couldn’t find it.) The use of the word ‘war’ was obviously considered but for me is always problematic. We all remember President Bush’s ‘War on terror’. It is a word guaranteed to give you a headline, and to communicate extreme determination. But to describe the fight against random acts of terror as a ‘war’ surely overstates it somewhat.

Mali President resigned

By contrast the President of Mali, in somewhat less extreme circumstances and on a less formal occasion, sounded simply resigned. I doubt he had a speech writer for this. To my mind he went way to far the the other way. He said:

“We don’t want to scare our people but we have already said Mali will have to get used to situations like this…No one, no where, is safe.”

Crisis speech guidelines

So how should it be done? Well, were I to find myself the speech writer in such a situation (not a job I would seek), my absolute priority would be to help restore calm and purpose. To achieve this the speech needs to do three things.

Firstly, and importantly it needs to inform – to provide whatever factual update is appropriate. Crises and fear promote speculation and rumour.  Leaders must do what they can to provide facts.

Secondly, the speech needs to demonstrate empathy and solidarity not so much with those injured or bereaved but with the wider (much larger) frightened population. Whilst there is a need to express horror, I would opt for some restraint. Hollande’s ‘It’s a horror’ hits the mark. Personally, I can’t see how Secretary of State John Kerry’s use of ‘psychopathic monsters’ helps anything. I prefer David Cameron’s  choice of words ‘shocked but resolute, in sorrow but unbowed’ although he later added ‘brutal, callous murders’.

Better place

Having established empathy, the speech should lead the audience to a better place. That needs to be a place of calm resolve, providing reassurance that they are protected by being part of something bigger, more grand and fundamentally good. This might be the greater France, the civilized world, democracy or – if culturally appropriate – under the protection of God, Allah or some other deity.

This is how President Hollande closed his statement last Friday evening:

‘I ask all of you to keep your faith in what our security forces can do to save our nation from acts of terrorism. Long live the Republic.  Long live France.’  Not as uplifting as it might have been.

Three days later his Versailles speech ended:

‘We will eradicate terrorism so France will continue to show the way. Terrorism will not destroy the Republic because it is the Republic which will destroy terrorism. Long live the Republic. Long live France.’ Better but not, in English at least, evocative or uplifting. Full transcript here.

Cameron ended his statement to parliament:

Your values are our values. Your pain is our pain. Your fight is our fight. And together, we will defeat these terrorists.’ For me this is how it should be done.

To cast the net a little wider; George Bush ended his broadcast immediately after the 9/11 attacks:

None of us will ever forget this day, yet we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world.

 Thank you. Good night. And God bless America.’ Similarly this shows the sure hand of an experienced speech writer.

Crisis communications – who would think it could be so hard!

Finally, let me leave you with an entertaining rant from the former Editor of the Sunday Times and now a BBC presenter. He breaks all my rules but then he is not a leader or figurehead, just a pundit. This was the opening monologue to his show This Week on BBC 1 on Thursday.

About Lindsay Williams

Prior to founding her communications training agency, The Media Coach, Lindsay Williams worked as a journalist from 1983. She specialised in financial and business journalism since 1991. After thirteen years in the BBC with local radio, regional television, Radio 4 and Radio 5 Live, she moved to Reuters Financial Television as Deputy Programme Editor. Working freelance from 1998, she was contracted in a variety of roles including as an executive producer for Bloomberg television delivering half hour profiles of Chief Executives, as a producer with Sky Business Unit and at CNBC. She has had articles published in Sunday Business, The Business, The Times and in specialist magazines such as Companies & Finance and Impact. For the majority of her journalism career she specialised in reporting business and finance. Lindsay Williams hosts a range of bespoke communication skills courses for The Media Coach which include Media Training, Presentation Training, Crisis Media Training and Message Building.

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