By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
Once again, we’re shocked and saddened. Early Friday morning, another sociopath with access to military-level firepower opened fire on movie theater patrons during a midnight premiere of the latest Batman film in Aurora, Colorado, injuring more than 50 and killing 12. This follows a long list of the previous times that we’ve been shocked and saddened, including the assassination attempt on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords(2011), the Fort Hood shooting (2009), the Virginia Tech and the New Life Church shootings (2007), the DC sniper shootings (2002), and of course the Columbine massacre (1999). In these events and the scores that have happened in-between, the days that follow have been filled with expressions of concern. The phrases, "deeply saddened," "senseless tragedy," and "our thoughts and prayers go out," are repeated in almost incantatory fashion by every public official and private entity connected to the event.
There is no doubt of course, that these expressions are sincere, and if they feel formulaic that may be because there is nothing else to say. But the numbing repetitiveness of the tragedies provide a reminder that sorrow is only part of the response in events like these and others that might one day become the subject of litigation. The additional part is, "so what are we going to do about it?" Whether it is a product injury, an oil rig explosion, or a bad medical outcome, the simple acknowledgment of loss can sound like a palliative if it isn't accompanied by a discussion of the actions that can be taken to minimize the chances of it happening again. In this post, I'll draw from the recent tragedy in my home state in order to note the limits of public communication when sorrow is allowed to stand-in for solutions.
A Dark Night in Colorado
Shortly after the start of a midnight showing of the latest Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, one among the full theater of costumed ticket holders left by an exit by the screen, retrieved the stash of guns, magazines, and ammunition he had begun stockpiling in past weeks, returned to the theater, tossed a smoke cannister of some kind and began shooting in the ensuing panic. He injured more than 50 and killed 12 in just the few minutes that the attack lasted.
Waking up the next morning, we heard from President Obama that, "Michelle and I are shocked and saddened by the horrific and tragic shooting in Colorado." That is similar to what he said the prior year after the killing of five and the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in 2011. At that time, the President was "grieving and in shock from the tragedy that took place..." There is a script for communications of this type, and perhaps with some irony, the word "shock" is always part of it. In his remarks after the Giffords shooting in Arizona, the President also called for a national dialogue on gun issues. But that dialogue never happened. Both shootings, as well as ten other recent mass shootings in this country, relied on high capacity magazines. It is easy to see the military and tactical law enforcement applications of these ammunition clips, but it is a greater stretch to see the self-defense or the hunting rationale...unless hunting entails the ability to get off at least a hundred rounds in just under two minutes in a crowded theater.
Following the Gabrielle Giffords shooting in 2011, there was an aborted effort to introduce legislation returning high capacity magazines to the status they were in under the now expired assault weapons ban. The law went nowhere. Now, predictably, there are some of the same calls, but commentators give it a slim chance in an election year. Following these tragedies, opponents of gun control reliably argue that "now is not the time" to discuss laws, adding in the suggestion that it is in poor taste to exploit these deaths for political purposes. The NRA, for example, only says, "our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their families and the community" and withholds further comment.
But if now is not the time, one wonders if there ever is a time. In a statement that is surprisingly candid, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, "You know, soothing words are nice, but maybe it’s time that the two people who want to be President of the United States stand up and tell us what they are going to do about it, because this is obviously a problem across the country." As Dan Gross, President of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence added, "You have to question how genuine that sympathy is if it's not accompanied by talk about solutions to the problem."
Whether your views of the solution tend toward limits on the legal availability of paramilitary weapons, or toward the view, as expressed by Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert, that concealed carry laws should allow more theater patrons to be armed as well, it is clear that the discussion and the national dialogue needs to focus on solutions and not just on sorrow.
A Complete Message is Better Communication
Exactly the same dynamic applies to much of the post-tragedy communication characteristic of companies and other parties that may become part of litigation. It is easy to talk about sorrow and regret. It is harder, but ultimately more effective, to talk of action. We've written extensively in this blog on apologies, and one clear takeaway from our research, and that of others, is that the communication has to be complete in order to be effective. A good apology is more than "sorry," but includes four parts: Remorse (...we're extremely sorry), Responsibility (...its our fault), Repair (...we're committed to fixing it) and Reform (...and prevent it from happening again). Communication following a tragedy isn't necessarily an apology, but it shares the quality of being a response to a critical situation, and carries the possibility of reframing the events in a positive direction.
As we've written before, a "no comment" is rarely an effective strategy, but in many cases the expression of concern alone is really a "no comment" masquerading as a comment. In other words, if all you've said is what everyone knows and no one could disagree with ("...our hearts go out to the victims"), then you really haven't added anything to the dialogue. You haven't commented. A complete message, once you've taken the time to develop it, should focus on your own response including any investigation, relevant policies and commitments, admissions, and corrective measures to be considered. Basically, it should answer the question, "How are we looking to avoid this in the future?"
Don't Let Cautions Cause You To Miss The Greater Risk
Of course, there are all kinds of reasons companies are legitimately wary of this kind of communication surrounding events that either are, or could be the subject of litigation. An immediate focus on corrective measures can sound too much like an admission, creating liability where there was none before. That is an obvious danger that attorneys and clients need to consider together. But another danger lies in truncating the response so much that it sounds uncaring. If a company has taken corrective measures, and can't keep that out of trial, it is possible to spin that in a productive direction: "No the product wasn't unreasonably dangerous, and yes the warnings were clear. But we still want to minimize the risks of accident no matter what the cause, and that is why we chose to add this improvement." That can be a challenging message, but defending the choice not to act can be even more challenging. And beyond the messaging, there is obviously an interest in preventing more tragedies and lawsuits in the future.
As we move on from the events in Aurora, I'm reminded of what President Obama said after the Gabrielle Giffords shooting, "If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let's make sure it's worthy of those we have lost. Let's make sure it's not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away in the next news cycle." We can continue to hope that the discussion will live up to that goal.
One sad fact among many is that the shooting happened in a movie premiere and the character and the movie will now always be associated with this tragedy. The thing I always liked about Batman is that he didn’t use a gun.
Other Posts on Advocacy in Times of Tragedy:
- Don't Say Nothing: The Limitations of "No Comment"as a Litigation Crisis Strategy
- Don't Advocate from a Position of Hate
- Cultivate Compassion
Photo Credit: kevin dooley, Fickr Creative Commons ("Batman" at Phoenix Comicon 2011)