Damar Hamlin Crisis Lessons: Is Prayer Taboo for Corporate Crises?

Some companies hesitate to mention prayer as part of their media response to a crisis. But prayer dominated USA news headlines this week after Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest crisis during Monday Night Football. Players from both teams immediately kneeled to pray for Hamlin as medics spent an agonizing eighteen minutes trying to restart his heart. Then, as Hamlin fought for his life, all 32 NFL teams changed their Twitter profile pictures to “Pray for Damar”. This past weekend more teams kneeled to pray for Hamlin and public prayer vigils have blanketed news cycles. Hamlin, now home recovering, has asked that people keep praying for him and says he felt the love. 

ESPN’s Live Prayer Session

ESPN analyst, Dan Orlovsky surprised sports viewers when he led a live prayer session for Hamlin during his show. Orlovsky said, “Maybe this is not the right thing to do, but it’s just on my heart and I want to pray for Damar Hamlin right now.” His live prayer was met with praise on social media from both sports fans and other commentators. 

To Pray – or Not to Pray

There was a time when most companies were fine with their spokesperson saying, “Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone affected by this tragedy.” But in recent years we noticed some leaders during our media and crisis training sessions questioning if prayer was appropriate during news media briefings. So, what is right for your organization regarding prayer? Here are some guidelines to help you decide.

Crisis Lesson No. 1: Match Your Audience

The foundation of all rapport is about matching your audience. Therefore, we advise companies to be true to their beliefs, culture, and customer base. This assumes you know your customers and culture. According to Pew Research Center the USA is an outlier among wealthy nations when it comes to prayer. Many Americans (55%) say they pray daily while another 22% pray weekly or monthly. There are some areas of the USA where a company would completely mismatch their community IF they failed to include comments about prayer in the wake of a real tragedy.

Pew Research on USA Prayer Habits

Crisis Lesson No. 2: Understand Congruence

The spokesperson is often the face of an organization during a crisis. One thing we know from coaching leaders and spokespersons is they cannot hide their beliefs. Therefore, if a spokesperson believes in prayer, then saying “Our thoughts and prayers are with those affected,” will come across as genuine. However, if a spokesperson does not believe in prayer, then saying it during a media interview will most likely not work well. Your nonverbal cues always give away your true beliefs about any subject. ESPN commentator Orlovsky spoke about his beliefs when he prayed for Hamlin, “If we believed that prayer didn’t work, we wouldn’t ask this of you, God. But I believe in prayer. We believe in prayer, so we lift up Damar Hamlin’s name in Your name. Amen,” he concluded.

Crisis Lesson No. 3: Know the Value of Empathy

There have been many studies conducted about public expectations during a crisis. One such study found the public judges a company by its ability to show empathy to those most impacted during a crisis. When you consider this in conjunction with the USA’s favor of praying, then prayer during a crisis could make sense for your organization.

Crisis Planning is Key

Most organizations have a Crisis Communication Plan in place to help them respond quickly during a crisis. A Plan can help you pre-identify your company’s philosophy on topics such as prayer. Then, during Media Crisis Training your leaders and spokespersons can test their skills and determine their comfort on key messages. The bottom line is to be true to your beliefs, culture, and customers for the best results.

Refresh Your Crisis Plans & Training

Keeping your crisis plans and training up to date are key! Your crisis response is only effective when you equip your people with the strategies they need to succeed! You may contact Benchmark Communications to review your organization’s crisis plans or to schedule training.