Emotions rule in a crisis. They are the matches that set the forest on fire. We tell our clients that facts and data are no match for emotions during a crisis. You had better understand how to work with emotions when you are managing a crisis. A recent story that went viral is a great reminder for anyone involved in crisis management.
After several busy months helping clients through some interesting crises, we were taking a few days off to ride our motorcycle through the rolling hills of East Texas. I was checking out news headlines on my iPhone when I saw a photo that made my heart sink. It was a skewered cat, pierced through the head with an arrow! A smiling woman proudly held her kill up in the air. The headline read ‘My first bow kill’: Texas veterinarian fired after allegedly killing cat with arrow and bragging about it on Facebook. Being an animal lover, I was shocked. We support several shelters and have rescued abandoned dogs and cats. Five of our rescues are now part of our family on our ranch outside of Houston.
My shock skyrocketed when I realized the
smiling woman was our personal vet, Dr.
My shock skyrocketed when I realized the smiling woman was our personal vet, Dr. Kristen Lindsey. For sixteen years we have trusted many of our animals to the clinic where she worked. She had become our preferred vet because she was so great with our horses, dogs and cats. Now, she had been fired, outraged animal lovers wanted her to go to jail for animal cruelty, some were even threatening her with death, and others were demanding her license be revoked. According to the article, the vet clinic’s phones were ringing nonstop, their website had crashed and Dr. Lindsey’s name had been hastily removed from the clinic’s sign.
I immediately called the vet clinic to see how everyone was doing. One of their front desk clerks timidly answered and was relieved when she realized I was not another screaming caller. For privacy purposes, I will call her Nancy. She said things were crazy. The clinic had received bomb threats and people were calling from across the country and world. Nancy said Dr. Lindsey stated she killed a feral cat; in our county feral cats pose real problems. Over the years we have incurred expensive vet bills after feral cats attacked our pet cats. But, people who saw the photo did not care if it was feral or not. Cat rescue groups said feral cats should be trapped and humanely euthanized. To make matters worse, a neighbor said the feline at the end of Dr. Lindsey’s arrow was their pet cat, Tiger. They posted photos and videos on social media and Tiger looked remarkably like the one on Dr. Lindsey’s arrow. The case was assigned to two sheriff investigators and their findings were later turned over to the local district attorney for review.
Emotions drive public reactions & media
coverage during a crisis.
Emotions drive public reactions and media coverage during a crisis. Facts are no match for emotions. Here are some of the emotional drivers I observed as this story raged across traditional and social media channels.
Emotion 1: Shock – Shock and disbelief are usually the first emotions in a crisis that goes viral. Like most people, I was shocked when I saw the cat skewered on an arrow with a smiling Dr. Lindsey. Those two opposing images created an irony of shock. The average person who looked at that photo saw a pet cat. Most people have no experience with feral cats, so even if it was feral, it was a shocking visual. The photo shocked even those who adored Dr. Lindsey and thought that she should not lose her livelihood. Other vets from around the country expressed shock that one of their own would kill a cat in this manner.
Emotion 2: Fear – Fear is another emotion you often see in the early stages of a crisis. Because I knew Dr. Lindsey, my fear was very different from those expressing their outrage and hatred. First, I feared this was indeed Tiger, the neighbor’s pet cat. I thought of my own cats and how I would feel. I also feared for the safety of the vet clinic, in light of the bomb threats. Then, there was fear for Dr. Lindsey. The level of hate expressed on social media toward her was explosive. The media said she was in hiding, along with her parents. People from around the world were targeting her on Facebook, Twitter and other channels. Animal activists immediately petitioned the Texas State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners to revoke Dr. Lindsey’s license to practice. If charged with animal cruelty, she could face jail time.
Emotion 3: Grieving – Grieving is another core emotion during crises. Cat rescue groups and others were grieving for Tiger, the missing neighbor’s cat. His owners posted cute photos and videos of him riding around their farm with them on an ATV. The media interviewed people who knew Tiger’s family and they expressed their sadness and anguish for this beloved pet. Two Facebook pages demanding justice for Tiger were activated and quickly gained 28,000 followers. Because I knew Dr. Lindsey, my emotions were different. As an animal lover, I felt sad for Tiger and his owners. On the other hand, I grieved for the vet who had been so wonderful with our animals. Even her alma mater, Colorado State, publicly condemned her. Activists and cyberbullies made it clear they plan to harass any clinic that hires her in the future if she is allowed to continue her career. Some of Dr. Lindsey’s clients openly grieved for their young vet, sharing stories on Facebook about how she had saved their pets’ lives. They encouraged others to wait for the sheriff’s investigation and to forgive her.
Emotion 4: Anger – When the emotion of anger escalates, your road to recovery from a crisis is a much steeper climb. Those who are most angry vent on social media and to news reporters, politicians, regulatory groups and others. A recent study confirms anger is the number one emotion that causes a story to go viral. I was shocked at the level of vile comments on social media and witnessed firsthand cyberbullies going after anyone who said Dr. Lindsey was a good and caring vet. An animal rescue group in Wyoming (Lindsey’s home state) has been threatened because they said the Lindsey family supported their organization and loved pets. The anger also fell on Dr. Lindsey’s mother, Becky, who acknowledged on Facebook she had snapped the now famous cat kill photo. Someone started a petition in her Wyoming hometown to remove Becky as deputy county treasurer, a job she has held for 14 years. Activist groups are using social media to encourage people to join protests at the county courthouse and to contact the district attorney to demand Dr. Lindsey be charged with animal cruelty. It has been two weeks since the Facebook post went viral, yet the vet clinic where she worked is still getting some calls from people around the world. Activists continue posting online updates about the case.
One of your goals during a crisis is to do
everything possible to offset the level of anger.
That is why it is important to be proactive and
build relationships prior to a crisis.
One of your goals during a crisis is to do everything possible to offset the level of anger. That is why it is important to be proactive and build relationships prior to a crisis. The vet clinic has been through a crisis tornado, but will survive because of the years of trust and relationships with their local stakeholders and clients. Dr. Lindsey’s immediate future is unclear at this point and activists appear committed to keeping the rage alive. Let us hope more people learn from this and think twice about their actions and what they post on social media. Emotions rule in a crisis. They are the matches that set the forest on fire.