Friday, June 21, 2013

A Communicator's Worst Day: Communicating Fatalities

Nothing in the discipline of crisis communications is more important or more difficult than communicating to the public that people have died. This is also the place where I've seen many organizations freeze as the gravity of the situation weighs down the company. It's critical to get this right and there are two basic principles that you can apply if this sad duty falls on your shoulders.

Don't delay a formal announcement
The news that a fatality has occurred should come from the company as soon as you know someone has lost their life. The only detail you need to release at this moment is the fact that an employee (or a contractor) has died. This is not the time to release names, details of the accident or any other specific information that can come later.

You need to make this acknowledgement because it changes the nature of the story. For example, if you have a large plant that has an explosion, it will make news. Explosions are newsworthy as reporters love fire. But an explosion that kills someone is a completely different story with a vastly different impact on people. Given that all journalism is about how events impact people, you can see how a fatality changes the story.

If the job of the communications team is to help key stakeholders and the news media understand the context of an adverse event, this is the most vital piece of context to communicate. It is also an unfortunate reality that social media will be swirling with news of a fatality before you issue your announcement. If you delay, people will assume you're hiding something. The fact that social media or first responders may have communicated news of the death or posted photos does not release you from the obligation to make the announcement, too.

Don't ignore the obvious
Is a medical examiner's or coroner's vehicle at your facility? If so, the media doesn't need to have you tell them someone's dead. Those trucks don't just drive around hoping to come across a corpse. If the coroner is there, someone's dead. Not confirming the obvious makes you look incompetent.

I've seen crisis plans that require that a doctor declare death before an announcement can be made. In some US states, death isn't "official" until the coroner or M.E. declares it so. I've also seen companies treat this as some form of technicality so that they can delay communicating for as long as possible. I'm not sure why, maybe they're waiting for them to be "not just merely dead, but really most sincerely dead" before issuing the release. In these cases, time is not your ally.

One more thing that's important for communicators to keep in mind when a tragedy strikes. In a lot of cases, the leadership of the facility has a personal relationship with the deceased. They're friends, they may play on the softball team together. Maybe they went to school together. If that's the case, then your leadership may be in shock and unable to rationally or quickly make the right call. Talk through this with your management ahead of time. Have clear protocols. Understand that people will be hurting. Get as much room to do what you need to do independent of approvals and stick to your plan.

The goal of this post isn't to rush you into communicating. It's to prevent you or someone on your team from making an awful day worse.

Bill Salvin


  1. George Smalley (via LinkedIn)June 22, 2013 at 11:43 AM

    Agree with your analysis. And when announcing fatalities, body language counts more than ever. Coming across as sincere and a caring human being and not a "suit" worried about liability can make a huge difference.

  2. Great point, George. Thanks for taking the time to make it and for reading the post. I appreciate it.

  3. Mateusz Witczyński (via LinkedIn)June 23, 2013 at 7:18 AM

    I'm not sure if, I can agree with that opinion. Of course to properly announce that somebody died is really hard. First because you have to immediately communicate it directly to the family, partners, and anybody who was in close relation with this person / people. It could never happen that somebody is informed about death of beloved person via mass media / social ones. Even if you do everything what's possible you will have the stigma "if i've done everything?" - and to that point it is the hardest effort you will have to do. Later, things are going easier (if in that situation something could be easy), because even as a communication pro's, we are humans, and whatever happened, the best way is to stay a human in communication. Even when, interests you are representing were harmed by this death (f/x when employee or subcontractor made a serious mistake) and there are no responsibility on yours client side.

  4. Thank you for reading, Mateusz. I appreciate your comment. Unfortunately, families finding out about the death of a loved one through mass media or social media has already happened. I know of at least one incident where media was able to identify a man who died AND get a photo of the main from his Facebook page. The story ran before the company got to the family to notify them of the death. If you look at the Boston Marathon, pictures of people with grievous injuries were posted on social media minutes after the bombing. What this tells me is that communications professionals have to be as fast as humanly possible. Even then, that will not be fast enough. My key point is that communicators can do everything right and still not be first. Therefore, the standard by which we judge our work should be, as you point out, "to stay human in communication."

  5. Bowman Olds (via LinkedIn)June 23, 2013 at 9:19 AM

    The final step in this communication process is the Notification Next of Kin. For those who have not been in this position, it requires a tremendous amount of preparation, planning, sensitivity and compassion for those family members who are notified. It also requires that both the verbal and nonverbal posture of those making the notification are sensitive to the reaction of those being notified.

  6. Bowman, you are right on the mark. Family notification is a delicate and vital procedure to get right. Preparation, planning and compassion are exactly what's required. One of my colleagues does a whole seminar on family notification based on his book "Who Goes to the Door." For anyone who is interested, the website is . I rarely post links in these spaces, but this is apropos to the thread. I really appreciate you taking the time to read and to leave a comment. Thank you!