Is your Oxytocin showing? How trust matters in a crisis

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Firestorm encourages thought leadership across a variety of industries. We are pleased to share insights from guest author, Dr. Kathie Fleck, APR. Dr. Fleck is the Assistant Professor in Communication and Media Studies at Ohio Northern University. With a career spanning various sectors, she provides a unique perspective backed by experience in business, politics, government, non-profit, and higher education.

A Southwest Flight from New York to Dallas recently landed prematurely in Philadelphia after an engine failure spit shrapnel through the cabin and killed a passenger. This was the first accidental US airline death in more than nine years. Even though no one can deny that a family has been forever altered by the horrific loss of a loved one, the Southwest tragedy was also hailed as a hero story.

According to, nearly 1 in 3 adult Americans are either anxious or outright afraid of flying. And 73% of those individuals are specifically concerned about mechanical problems during flight. These statistics are important. When one-third of your current and potential customers are wary or fearful of your basic product, airlines must continually spend time, money and energy developing a high level of trust.

Prior to this crisis, the Reputation Institute ranked Southwest as a global reputational leader. Because of its consistently high performance, Southwest had earned trust credit it could cash in when the crisis struck. But that isn’t the whole story. Given the underlying fear of flying, many existing or potential customer’s worst fears played out dramatically right in front of them – the potential for long-term damage was serious. This is where oxytocin comes in.

Paul J. Zak, founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies and a professor of economics, psychology, and management at Claremont Graduate University, tells us that oxytocin increases a person’s empathy, an important component to building trust. Alternatively, Zak indicates that high stress is a potent oxytocin inhibitor. What does this mean for crisis communicators? When you are in a high-stress situation, such as an airline accident, it becomes very difficult to build trust in the moment. Any response must be genuinely empathetic in order to overcome the flood of chemicals flowing through the situation.

Southwest pilot Tammie Jo Shults did just that, saving her passengers and trust in Southwest. How did she do it?

Audio of Captain Shults communicating with the tower to safely land the wounded plane was played non-stop by national media. Her calm response to the emergency drew praise from passengers, media and even the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. But Shults didn’t stop there. After landing, passengers recount her walking through the plane, speaking to every passenger, checking on the well-being of each. One set of parents told reporters she reassured their 6-year-old daughter that in her more than 30 years of flying, the oxygen masks had never before been deployed.

Captain Shults’ ability to manage her own stress and empathize with the fear of her passengers, cemented a level of trust in a moment of high stress that helped soften the blow of a tragic situation. A Google search several months after the incident of Shults’ name and the word “hero” returned about 200,000 hits. You can’t fabricate a hero.

Southwest’s executive leadership also responded quickly and with genuine empathy. Southwest released a video of CEO Gary Kelly who committed to assisting the victim’s family with “whatever they need.” He also acknowledged the painful loss and said, “let me assure you the safety of our customers and crew is our uncompromising priority.”Professional woman headshot

Handling this emergency took more than the just right plan, requisite number of social posts, or the holding of a mandatory press conference. Simply going through the right crisis response routine may stem a tide, but it won’t build or rebuild trust. That has to be baked into an organization up front so that when tragedy strikes, the natural response is genuinely empathetic.

About the Author: Dr. Kathie Fleck, APR

Dr. Kathie Fleck, APR is an assistant professor in communication and media studies at Ohio Northern University. She has more than 25 years experience in private business, politics, government, non-profit and higher education. In addition to teaching, she is the principal of KRF Consulting working with clients in a wide range of industries. Her research interests include crisis communication and political communication.

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