Dealing with emotion in crisis communications – the UK results fiasco
Following the release of A-level and GCSE results in the UK, I discuss how to counter an incident which has invoked a lot of emotion.
The algorithm seemed flawed
This week my daughter Phoebe was one of the students anxiously awaiting her GCSE exam results. You couldn’t fail to see the government flailing around trying to produce a set of results for the GCSE and A-Level students. I think the government’s idea to have teachers predict the grades and then use an algorithm to ensure that grades are roughly in line with last year seemed sensible. The algorithm was needed, as teachers often over-predict their students’ grades. From my understanding, the algorithm seemed flawed with students being given grades, in some cases, way below what they were expecting, and their teachers predicted for them. The TV news cycle was filled with teenagers explaining the grades they thought they were going to get and how their dreams of getting to a top university or their first-choice course were dead. The students had fulfilled their side of the bargain by working hard, but the government had not done their part in overseeing the system, to ensure the grades they were given represented the work they had put in and their likely grades. The interviews made a compelling watch and you couldn’t help but feel sympathy for the students.
Different sorts of victims
During incidents there are always victims, they could be the people whose house had been destroyed in a storm, the dam failing and killing large numbers of those who live downstream, the layoff of 1000’s of staff who might lose their house or those affected by a chemical spill or gas leak. They all have compelling stories to tell and we can’t not be moved as they look into the camera to tell their story and the effect the incident has had on them and their family. On the other side there are the large corporations whose actions cause the incident in the first place, often through neglect, poor practice or cost-cutting and if there is a natural disaster the government or local authorities who seemingly do not do enough are expected to respond to the incident. When faced with a distraught father saying his children are now living on the street and nobody is helping them, his family do not have shelter or food or any other help and the government saying there is lots of aid coming to the area, giving a long list of what they have delivered, it is usually the distraught father who is believed. Their story may not always be true and there may be an immense amount of aid and support coming but they might be one of the few who has not been helped yet. In this situation the emotion from the father is countered by the government stating a long list of how many tons of aid is being provided, emotion trumps logic and so the government is not believed. In the same way with A-Level and GCSE results, our government trying to put the blame on an algorithm and expressing that they were trying to be fair was not going to work.
I always like a technique that can be used to help respond in an incident and I recently came across this article on the ‘Crisis Ready Institute's’ website which talks about this issue. There is a formula which says that if you are dealing with a crisis or incident which has a strong emotional component you cannot overcome the situation with pure logic. The response formula devised by Melissa Agnes states:
EMOTION v LOGIC (VALIDATION+RELATABILITY+PROOF)
What this means is that when faced with an emotional incident, you cannot use facts and figures to put forward your own narrative or side of the story. What you need to do is to counter the following:
- Validation – First you need to emphasise with those affected by the incident and show that as an organisation you understand their pain and the situation they are in. They need to feel that you understand their issues and you are listening to them. In Scotland, who had a similar exam problem with the English system, both ministers apologised. I think a straight-out apology helps that initial validation that as an organisation you admit that you have failed or come up short in the response.
- Relatability – You then need to make sure that they know this situation matters to you and you are taking their issues seriously.
- Proof – Once you have done the two former actions and people feel they have been listened to and are cared about, then you can tell them about the actions you are going to take, when you are going to do it, the facts and your commitment to them.
Make sure that your actions in responding don’t make matters worse
In responding and implementing number 3 ‘proof’, you have to make sure that your actions in responding don’t make matters worse as this will then turn into another negative story. For those students with A-level results which are going to be adjusted to teacher’s predicted scores, they may have now lost out on a university place as even though they now have the grades for the course, the course is already full. This leads to the government having to decide whether it will fund the additional places which perpetuates the chaos and bad management around the exams.
Sometimes the difficulty in countering emotion is that those affected by the incident are mainly happy with the response but the media will go out of their way to find a disgruntled person in order to make a better news story, so however good your response is you may need to use this formula to respond. To finish off the story, Phoebe got one 9, four 8’s, two 7’s and a 6 - so very well done!