PR in a panic: How to reason with an audience overcome with fear

As communicators look to engage an anxious public around crises like the gasoline shortage in the Eastern U.S., an ability to empathize is paramount.


As nerves have settled since the recent ransomware attack on the Colonial Pipeline, which led to a temporary fuel shortage throughout parts of the Southeast, it’s worth examining the stabilizing effect of public relations when a significant portion of the population is in full panic mode.

In some parts of the country, there were temporary shortages of gas due to the pipeline’s impact on the supply chain. Other areas—like most of Florida—shortages were self-inflicted as people needlessly hurried to the pumps to top of their tanks. Rumors of scarcity prompted motorists to panic-buy fuel, which caused the very thing we were hoping to avoid. It gave life to the famous line from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” The fear of a gas shortage created a shortage of gas.

State and local officials urged the public not to overreact and tried to persuade citizens that panic is not only unnecessary but harmful. They tried to convince people that ending the pain at the pump begins with ending the paranoia on social media. In this situation, constructing a message based on logic and sound reasoning is an uphill climb when the main driver of attitudes and actions is emotion. Negative emotions can turn on like a light switch, but they often fade like a smoldering campfire.

Adding misinformation to the mix further complicates the situation. But it shouldn’t discourage PR pros from deploying an aggressive communication strategy to mitigate the damage by conveying the truth.

One way to craft panic-reducing messages is by following the ASAP method: acknowledge, situation, action, picture.

  • Acknowledge the concern: Validating legitimate concerns assures audiences that you understand how they feel based on information they have. It makes sense for a reasonable person to wonder about the reliability of our fuel supply if a major pipeline is compromised.

    It’s common for communicators to skip this step and go right into the explanation. But a simple acknowledgement of how people feel could determine whether or not your message will resonate. Empathy is a path to gaining credibility, which is needed to develop trust. People are less likely to act on new information that is contrary to what they already “know” if they don’t trust the source.

  • Situation report: Panic is propelled by a blend of partial truth, rumors, fake news and speculation. The communicator’s job is to explain the situation with precision and clarity. It will probably involve correcting the record or giving context to the story so people can have a better grasp of what’s really happening. A good best practice is to think like a reporter by addressing who, what, when, why and how.
  • Action plan: Explain the steps your organization is taking to alleviate the problem. It’s just as crucial to provide guidance on what the public can do to be part of the solution. Last week, Florida Agriculture Commissioner, Nikki Fried, who oversees consumer services, put out several messages sharing what her agency and others were doing to ensure the availability of fuel. She also urged citizens to not form lines and to not hoard gas.
  • Picture success: What would happen if we all did our part? Effective messaging offers a vision of where we’re heading and paints a picture of what it looks like when we arrive. If we do [tasks A, B, C] then we’ll be able to see [benefits X, Y, Z]. It’s the communicator’s responsibility to tell the story and not depend on the audience to fill in the gaps.

Every step of the ASAP method must be grounded in honesty and respect. Attempts to water down reality or bend the truth under the assumption that the public can’t handle it will be sniffed out and exposed. If the situation is dire, say so. But explain how our actions moving forward will ether lead to relief or make the problem worse. The time to panic is never.

While a sound messaging strategy might not instantly eliminate public fear, it can serve as a speed bump to slow people down from their impulse to act on raw emotion. Whether it’s a shortage of lumber, toilet paper, gasoline or some other impending crisis, the reactions of the masses will be shaped by the manner in which we communicate.

Joe McLeod is a managing partner and public relations consultant with McLeod Communications. He is the co-host of the On Message podcast. Follow on Twitter @mcleodcomm.



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