A week last Friday, a terrorist attack in the area of London Bridge resulted in the deaths of two young people. In a cruel twist of irony, those two young people worked for a charity that helped to rehabilitate ex-offenders, yet their killer was himself recently released from prison.

The bravery of members of the public and the emergency services in preventing the casualties from being even worse was the only slight glimmer of light in this dark episode.

The following Monday, a vigil was held at Guildhall, a few minutes’ walk from London Bridge. The Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, and the Bishop, Mayor, and Lord Mayor of London were all in attendance. The latter three also delivered short speeches.

No-one wants to be in situations where speeches or statements like these are needed. But, unfortunately, such situations do arise.

Boris Johnson’s response has been criticised for politicising the attack, for not paying due deference to the human cost of the event. What would be a more appropriate and empathetic response?

What should an elected representative or a spokesperson say after a tragic event like a terrorist attack?

My suggestions are below.

You’ll notice that I’m focussing on what should be said – not what shouldn’t be said. Do not use the loss of life as an opportunity to promote your organisation or cause. Simple.

1. Acknowledge those who are grieving

Above all else, remarks at a vigil or a statement to the media must engage on a human level. Show emotion. Be empathetic.

2. Thank those who put their lives on the line

Yes, every politician will commend “our brave policemen and women,” but for good reason. When ordinary people perform extraordinary acts, they deserve gratitude and praise.

3. Recognise what has been learned or what positive action is being taken

It is crucial that the speech or statement gestures beyond itself. Simply saying “thank-you” or “well done” is not, in this instance, enough. These words need actions.

The guidance above should be familiar to any of us in comms and PR, particularly those of us who have put together crisis communications. The guidance applies to a variety of situations, though I suggest that we might add a few other points to reflect the specific mood of our social media age.

4. Focus on the victims and the heroes – not the perpetrators. Name the former but not the latter

I was moved, earlier this year, by the response from New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, to the attack on the mosque in Christchurch.

The gunman, Ardern said, “sought many things from his act of terror, but one was notoriety. That is why you will never hear me mention his name.”

On the other side of the same coin, the #SayHerName movement in the States insists that black female victims of police brutality are named, so as not to reduce them to a statistic and strip them of their individuality.

5. Consider how the statement will be shared

Following the previous point, write the speech or statement with its “secondary” audience in mind – that is, not those in the room or those receiving the email, but those who read the lines after they’ve been shared in newspapers or on social media.

Most people will not engage with the speech or statement in long-form, so including a succinct sound-bite is not to play to the media in a cynical way, but to ensure that your voice cuts through the noise.

6. Find the positive, without downplaying the negatives

Again, this is guidance for the social media age. Twitter, particularly, is a hostile place. I believe it is the ethical responsibility of leaders, representatives, and spokespeople to identify the light at the end of the tunnel.

Example speech after a terrorist attack

To offer an example, I’ve shared below the remarks delivered by the Lord Mayor of London. These are on the public record and were reported by many news outlets.

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, makes a speech from a podium outside Guildhall after the London Bridge terrorist attack of November 2019.
Photo by Henry Nicholls (Reuters) via the Guardian.
NB: The speech below was by the Lord Mayor – not the Mayor – of London.

Ladies and gentlemen, this morning we gather to pay tribute to the victims of Friday’s attack, and to extend our heartfelt thanks to those members of the public and the emergency services who demonstrated such remarkable bravery.

In moments like these, we are reminded not of what separates us, but of what pulls us together.

Our shared humanity. Our shared resilience. Our shared love.

We have lost two brilliant young people.

Intelligent, talented, kind young people who chose to give their time and energy to helping others, and to making this world a more loving and forgiving place.

Saskia and Jack will be missed enormously – and, on behalf of the City of London, I send our condolences to their families and friends.

Our thoughts are also with those recovering from Friday’s attack. You have undergone something that no-one should have to undergo.

And to those members of the public and the emergency services who were first on the scene: thank-you. Thank-you for your courage and selflessness.

In these sad moments, we should be reminded that truly remarkable people walk among us.

Though it may be difficult, we must remember to look beyond the sadness of the moment, to celebrate the lives of Saskia and Jack, and to be proud of all our fellow citizens who came together to affirm our shared humanity.

Thank you.