Good family liaison
It is vitally important for organisations to have a clear strategy for family liaison. This is often the one piece missing from most kidnap response plans – the human element. With the right guidance and advice, it is possible for organisations to build a strong and positive relationship with the family of a hostage, despite the obvious pressures everyone is under.
You only get one chance to make a first impression. Your first contact with the family will set the scene for your relationship throughout the kidnapping and beyond. It is important to demonstrate to the family that you are prioritising the time and resources of your organisation to secure the safe release of their loved one. Ensure that a senior manager is present to represent the organisation. It is unrealistic for this person to act as the family’s point of contact long-term, so ensure they are accompanied by the person that will fulfil the role of family liaison officer. If you do not do this, the family may interpret the change of personnel later as a sign that you are de-prioritising them and their loved one.
Managing communication with the family
At your first meeting with the family, ask them how they would like to handle communications with you – how often would they like contact? Would they prefer that in person, over the phone or via Skype? Who should be included in communication? Each family is different – you need to be flexible and work around what is best for the family.
Bear in mind that their preferences might change over time. Their personal circumstances might change affecting when and how they are able to take phone calls or attend meetings. Their energy levels and ability to focus are likely to be impaired as the kidnap continues, meaning they ask for additional family members or friends to be involved to assist them. They may struggle to sleep, making early morning phone calls difficult.
Wherever possible, follow up conversations and meetings with a written record. It is widely understood that stress and trauma negatively affect our ability to concentrate and retain information. Families will be able to better follow developments in the case with a written record. This will also decrease the burden on your team and decrease the likelihood of family members misremembering and this causing conflict with or suspicion of the organization.
You will also need to judge the level of information that the family is able to cope with. Some family members will want – and be able to deal with – large amounts of detail. Others may wish to have contact only when there is a major development. Discuss this openly with the family and reassure them that there is no single approach and that you will respond to what is best for them.
It is also worth bearing in mind that families are likely to have recurring questions throughout the kidnapping – both because they are struggling to come to terms with a particular decision or because they are having difficulty remembering the information they have received. Be patient with them and be ready to have conversations over and over. Talking things through is part of what helps them to reassure themselves that they are doing everything they can for their loved one.
It is vitally important to be consistent and do what you promise. If you say you will call at a certain time, make sure you do. If you know it will be difficult to commit to a specific time, then explain this to the family rather than promise and hope it works out. A family’s relationship with an organization can breakdown over something as simple as a missed phone call followed by a weak excuse. Once that trust has gone, the organization faces an uphill battle to rebuild it.
Managing family dynamics
Families are complicated. There may be separations and step children. There may be family feuds which mean that some members will not communicate directly with others. There may also be disagreements within the family about how the case should be handled and how you as an organisation should communicate with them. It is important to tread carefully, create a mental map of family members and any dynamics that you need to be aware of.
Helping with practical challenges faced by families
Families can experience a range of practical needs during a kidnapping and organizations can provide significant support by helping them to overcome them.
These might be legal challenges, such as obtaining a Power of Attorney, if the family needs access to something in the hostage’s name, such as an investment or bank account.
They might require assistance handling the impacts on young children and teenagers, such as help contacting the school, or connections to child psychologists who offer guidance on how to communicate effectively with children and minimize the impact of the kidnapping on them.
They might need help handling the media or assistance in changing privacy settings on their social media accounts.
They might need help with basic family and household management at those times when they are struggling to cope.
Delivering bad news
If the worst happens and the hostage dies, you may be required to notify the family. This is a difficult job, but an important one. How this news is conveyed can have a significant impact on how the family deals with the trauma.
This news is best delivered face to face. Only under the most exceptional circumstances should it be delivered over the phone or Skype. This might happen where the news is about to break on media or social media and you are not able to get someone to the family quickly enough. Or if the family is away from home or travelling out of reach of their normal point of contact, another organizational representative or government official.
It is important to prepare yourself for the conversation. Be clear about the facts and what you don’t yet know. And try to have a second person with you, whether to support you or to assist with practical challenges, such as if there are children at home.
When you arrive, ensure you identify yourself and satisfy yourself that you are talking to the correct member of the family. Speaking calmly and clearly and do not delay what you have to say. Use straightforward and direct language. Take your time and allow the family to respond at their own pace.
Don’t ask the family to fill in any forms or make decisions at this stage. Come back another time to do this.
Children should not be left out of this, but if they are young, be sensitive that they may need looking after separately as your visit continues.
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Characteristics of a good family liaison officer
Not everyone will make a natural family liaison officer. The skills and attributes this individual needs are unlikely to match any particular job title within your organization, so select people for this role based on them as individuals rather than their normal job.
Family liaison officer should be individuals who are patient, empathetic and active listeners. They need to feel comfortable dealing with emotionally stressful situations and delivery bad news clearly and without evasion. They will need to adept at gathering information effectively and sensitively. And they must always project and maintain calm. Panic is contagious and it can be too easy to be influenced by the emotion generated by the family. This will not help them.
It is important that these individuals are not in a personal crisis themselves, as families do not need someone who requires support themselves. They will be required to take on the stress of the family without showing its impact on them.
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