The Importance of Body Language in Crisis Communications

Apr 26, 2024

This week’s bulletin has been provided by Resilience Forward, who look at why the correct use of body language is important in crisis communications and discuss what organisations should and shouldn’t do.

Body language plays a role in live presentations, recorded video, and photography. However well crafted a crisis communications message is, it can be diluted – or even completely undermined – by contradictory or unsupportive body language.

A current example is the media attention given to a photograph released by the Prince and Princess of Wales on 10th March  – the UK’s Mother’s Day. The image was intended to build confidence about the state of the Princess of Wales’s health, which has been under intense scrutiny in recent weeks following the sudden announcement of an abdominal operation in January and lack of public information since that point.

The image, shown below, shows the Princess of Wales surrounded by her three children, Prince George, Princess Charlotte, and Prince Louis. At first glance it is an idealistic family portrait – but the picture quickly created its own media storm with accusations of digital manipulation, later confirmed by the Princess of Wales.

Source: @KensingtonRoyal on X

What is more interesting than the digital manipulation story is the body language cues also displayed in the photograph.

Prince Louis has the fingers of his right hand crossed – which in the UK, and some other cultures, is a symbol used to indicate intentional lying. It can also be a nervous gesture, which could be indicating that Prince Louis is uncomfortable with the situation. Whatever the cause of the gesture it isn’t wise to release a photograph intended to build confidence with one of the key players in the photograph giving a signal that can be interpreted as lying.

Another interesting attention-to-detail aspect of the photograph is the lack of wedding and engagement rings on the Princess of Wales’s hands. If the picture is meant to cement the idea of a happy, traditional, family then the lack of rings, which can be clearly seen on many other pictures of the Princess of Wales, seems like a mistake.

Body language in crisis communications

The above is just one recent example of where body language can inadvertently create mixed messages.

When it comes to corporate crisis communications there are myriad areas of body language that need to be looked for. This article will highlight a couple of common areas but doing some background reading and practicing body language reading is required to become effective in scrutinising crisis communication for body language issues.

Tell tale signs of lack of confidence in the message

If a crisis spokesperson lack’s confidence in the veracity of the message that they are giving, or if they know that they are lying, this will come out in small micro-gestures which the speaker probably won’t even be aware of. However, people are often very good at subconsciously recognising such cues, which will lead to a ‘gut feeling’ that something isn’t quite right.

Such micro-gestures include:

  • A single sided small shrug of a shoulder.
  • A slight shake of the head when making a positive statement.
  • Touching the nose, covering the mouth, or scratching the face.
  • Closing eyes for longer than a normal blink.
  • An abnormally fast blinking rate.

Avoid arrogance signals

If a spokesperson is trying to get a message across of empathy, sympathy, or understanding it is important to avoid giving out signals of arrogance, superiority, or distancing.

Examples of these include:

  • Chin up: holding the head high with the chin tilted upward can be a sign of disdain or feeling superior to others.
  • Pointing or using aggressive gestures: using pointed fingers or aggressive hand gestures towards others can be a sign of trying to assert dominance.
  • Minimal facial expressions: showing little to no reaction to a situation or prompts, such as questions, indicates lack of empathy.

How to show openness and transparency

Honesty really is the best policy when it comes to body language. If a spokesperson is confident in the message that they are giving and that they know it to be true, their body language will often reflect this, with no effort involved! However the truthfulness of a message can be emphasised by use of body language such as:

  • Open posture: keeping arms uncrossed and legs relaxed, rather than closed off or crossed.
  • Open hands: showing your hands and keeping them visible suggests you have nothing to hide. Gestures with open palms can be particularly effective in demonstrating sincerity.
  • Genuine smiles: smiling with the eyes, known as a Duchenne smile, indicates that a smile is genuine and promotes trust.
  • Leaning in: slightly leaning towards the camera that is being communicating with shows interest and engagement.

While body language is not an exact science, it is often a reliable indicator of the state of someone’s mind and emotions. A lot of effort goes into crafting crisis communications messages: however, in reality, the body language used when giving the message is as important as the message itself.

To read the full article, please click here.

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