What to Say When There’s Nothing to Say

What to Say When There’s Nothing to Say

The scene is riveting and painful.

A slender woman, smartly dressed, stands to speak in the name of the family of a young man killed in a police-involved shooting. She is articulate, direct, respectful but critical of the police department and the DA’s office for their handling of the investigation. And she is on edge . . . the knife edge of pain too deep to be spoken, of anger too raw for someone with manners to express.

When she concludes, she avows that she “will live, and will die, for my cousin. I will die right here today.” Her control gone, her grief overcomes her, and she is eased back into her seat.

On the raised stage of the church where this town hall meeting occurs, the police chief, the district attorney, and the county sheriff sit in silence. Their faces, in this painful moment, are masks. They speak not a word. Seconds pass. Nothing.

I have shown this clip to a number of audiences of public officials, both elected and appointed. Reactions generally are of two varieties.

One is disappointment with, even anger at, the law enforcement officials who sat mutely staring into the audience. How could they sit there in silence when this woman was laying her grief before them? Didn’t they care? Couldn’t they even have said, “I’m so sorry for your loss and your pain”?

The other is sympathetic. “They probably didn’t know what to say. What can one say in a situation like that?”

For those of us who can imagine facing the cameras in such moments of community grief and community anger, both reactions make sense. But for our citizens, I suspect it is the first reaction that dominates.

Because leaders are supposed to know what to say. They are supposed to have words that begin the process of healing . . . or, failing that, at least show their humanity and their empathy.

In other moments of crisis, they are supposed to have words that inspire, words that comfort, words that remind us of who we are, who we can be. Words that call us to our better selves, to our common vision, that rally us to our hope instead of our despair, to our compassion instead of our hatred.

Recently, the presidential nominating contests have fostered some discussion of precisely these sorts of concerns. Who among the contenders would provide the kind of personal presence and leadership that the nation would need should something horrible happen? Because we know, unfortunately, that horrible things happen . . . and no political promises can change that reality.

More often than not, it is an executive that will be thrust into the spotlight in a moment of crisis: a president, a mayor, a chief of police. But the rest of us should not imagine ourselves to be free of responsibility. Legislators, councilmembers and senior staff all may find themselves before the microphone, or simply before the crowd, at a moment of crisis, when words matter and do-overs are not allowed.

During my time in office, one such moment involved a critical court decision. When the reporter told me about it, my first response was not at all appropriate. Fortunately, the reporter missed it (or was too kind to quote it). I got a second chance, and the second time, I got it right.

But in this era, an era of cell phone videography and instant social media posts, I probably would have gone viral . . . like a disease, not like a rock star.

As unpleasant as it may be, public leaders must think about the worst things that can happen and how they will respond.

Part of this is contingency planning, the internal, logistic work of professional staff who consider and plan for disaster.

But part of this must be communication planning, knowing who will speak and how he/she will speak, knowing how the city will keep the citizenry informed. It is imagining and practicing dealing with what all of us hope will never happen . . . but may happen anyway.

Because there are no second chances in a crisis. We have one opportunity to say it right, to send the right message, to calm and to encourage, to inspire and to instill trust.

Presidents must have this temperament and this training. But so must city leaders.

What we say matters.

And we simply must know what to say.

For this reason, the Florida League of Cities is sponsoring a crisis communication workshop on February 25th in Gainesville, led by Sachs Media Group. I hope you will join me for this training.