Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Teachable Tragedy: Dan Wheldon Didn't "Pass Away"

Leaders often have a difficult time talking about about the death of an employee or member of their team. There are few things more important to get right in crisis communications than discussing the human toll of an event.

The world saw a sad example of a death announcement recently when Indy Car CEO Randy Bernard announced the death of driver Dan Wheldon at the season finale of the Indy Car season at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The statement he delivered was 32 seconds long. The first sentence was:

"Indy Car is sad to announce that Dan Wheldon has passed away from unsurvivable injury (sic)."

Dan Wheldon didn't pass away. He died. He died from injuries suffered in a crash during the race. 

This is important. 

Strong and successful leaders must to be able to deliver bad news, even when its heartbreaking. Saying that Wheldon "passed away" is weak and makes it sound as though the horror of what hundreds of thousands of people watched live was something other than horrific.

I'm not advocating a heartless, cold or clinical description of this type of incident. I'm advocating reality. Here's how Tom Brokaw announced the death of his friend and colleague Tim Russert:

Brokaw was direct, to-the-point and factual. We understood the magnitude of the tragedy from the simple clarity of his language. 

Dan Wheldon's nickname on the racing circuit was "Lionheart." Wheldon earned that nickname from other drivers who said he raced with his heart, and not his head. The least the CEO of Indy Car could do when he stepped behind the mic is announce Dan's death with the same amount of heart as Dan used behind the wheel.

Bill Salvin


  1. I couldn't agree with you more. Bernard is NOT a leader, Dan's death proves that.In my opinion Bernard was partially at fault because he thought more of ratings than he did the lives of the drivers. How very sad for this world that Dan is no longer with us. The 500 will never be the same. I remember watching Dan win in 2011, he was so happy it almost made you cry. I'm so glad that he had that final victory and the happiness it brought him in the sport he loved so much. I believe there was a reason he didn't have a ride this year, so that he could be with his family more to give them incredible memories before this terrible tragedy took place. I really don't know how Bernard can carry on in his position after this event, and I don't know if I can ever watch the 500 again. I hope Dan will always haunt his dreams and that he will never forget what he helped take from the world. Dan was a true champion. Not only on the track, but he achieved what we all strive for, he was a champion of life and he will be forever missed. I'm so so sorry this happened to you Dan. Rest in peace knowing you are loved.

  2. Love this post. You hit on one of my pet peeves. People die and as a communicator, professional advisor and writer, I find the use of the term "passed away" very odd. I'm okay if I hear the phrase "since his passing..." after you've explained the death, but that's as close to it as I'll get. The best writing is clear, concise, factual and devoid of bad euphemisms.