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Why empathy is critical when disaster strikes  

July 2022: Accepting responsibility and liability very early on is a critical aspect of effective crisis response, which can aid the victims’ healing and compensation process, says Tony Jaques in his latest blog.

When a boatload of tourists was involved in an incident in remote northwest Australia and more than a dozen were taken to hospital – some with serious injuries – you might expect the company to express shock and sympathy. But apparently not. According to media reports, the only statement from the tour operator was to advise it was working with authorities to help the injured passengers and liaising with emergency services.
The incident took place in May, 2022, at the Horizontal Waterfalls, a tourist attraction where tides surge through narrow chasms at Talbot Bay, 250 miles northeast of Broome. When police said passengers on the tour boat had been thrown into the sea, with crocodiles and box jellyfish in the area, the company issued a second statement denying the police version of events.

“The vessel did not capsize and no passengers were in the water,” the statement said. “The boat immediately returned to the pontoon.”

We probably won’t know the official version of what took place for months. But we do know that for the injured people in hospital, a timely corporate message of sympathy and display of empathy would have been welcome. Of course, this company is not alone in taking a very cautious approach to communication after an accident.

For example, when a bouncy castle at a Tasmanian school was lifted into the air by a wind gust in December 2021 – with six children killed and three injured – the incident made national and international headlines. Yet the company that supplied the attraction appeared to remain silent. One media story said the company had shut down its website and Facebook page and gone into hiding in the wake of the tragedy. It was reported a person who answered their listed mobile number said: “I’m sorry, I can’t answer any questions.”

As with the Western Australian incident, an official investigation will eventually reveal what went wrong and who was responsible. But when high-profile accidents happen, there should be no legitimate barrier to immediately expressing empathy and doing the right thing.

Consider the rollercoaster accident at the Alton Towers theme park in Staffordshire, England in 2015, where 16 people were injured. CEO Nick Varney immediately went to the scene and declared the company took full responsibility. After the company was fined for health and safety breaches he said, “From the beginning the company has accepted full responsibility for the terrible accident at Alton Towers and has made sincere and heartfelt apologies to those who were injured. In accepting responsibility and liability very early on, we have tried to make the healing and compensation process as trouble free as possible for all of those involved.” His company even paid the legal fees for the families’ injury lawyers.

Its Corporate Affairs Director later told the BBC that the company chose not to have a long consultation with lawyers and other advisors. “Our immediate response and subsequent actions were driven by a desire to do what we believed was the right thing by all those affected by the accident,” he said. 

In the case of the bouncy castle and tour boat incidents, we don’t know what legal advice, if any, was sought or provided. However, they highlight that even in the worst accident, expressing empathy and sympathy for victims should be a critical part of an effective crisis response.  
Tony Jaques is an expert on issue and crisis management and risk communication. He is Director of Melbourne-based consultancy Issue Outcomes.
Image: Antonio Rodriguez | Adobe Stock   

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