Crisis is my job—it’s even right there in my title—but in 2020, it feels like we are all working in crisis, both professionally and in our personal lives. Recently, like so many of us, my friends and family have grappled with an onslaught of hardships: losing loved ones, getting fired, confronting the hard truths of racial inequality in this country. Even when I wasn’t affected directly, I was forced to look the people I care about in the eye and grasp the extent of their pain. I tried to connect and to comfort—to be empathetic. I did my best, but I was reminded how difficult it can be to relate to the inner workings of another human being, like trying to read an instruction manual in a foreign language.
If it’s hard for people, it’s doubly so for corporations. My experiences caused me to reflect on the role of empathy in our work as communications consultants, especially in crisis management. Earlier this year, I was excited to learn that Ketchum was changing its company tagline to “empathy + intelligence.” Empathy, loosely defined as the act of understanding and appreciating another person’s feelings, is an undervalued yet essential asset in the communicator’s toolkit. People are emotional creatures. As message-bearers and storytellers, we must use our brains not only to convey information or solve problems, but also apply our instincts and compassion to change minds and inspire hearts.
Never is that wisdom more relevant than in today’s world. Empathy is important in good times, but recent events have demonstrated that it can be even more powerful in times of turmoil, when people are full of anger, grief and despair. The companies that have most successfully navigated the pandemic are those that have displayed the most empathy with both internal and external stakeholders. Think of Marriot CEO Arne Sorenson getting nearly choked up as he delivered a heartfelt address to his employees, or Spanx CEO Sara Blakely talking about her own feelings of anxiety and hopelessness.
Where do some go wrong? When crisis strikes, companies must convey a lot of sensitive information in a short amount of time. These days, it’s often information dealing with topics like job cuts, COVID in the workplace or shortage of essential goods. The stakes are high. No one can fault them for being cautious with their words, but too often they come across as rigid, robotic and rote. Absorbed in their immediate needs as business leaders, it becomes hard to see and feel the situation from other perspectives: front-line workers, community members, etc. In short, they fail to connect with their stakeholders at an emotional level and, in doing so, fail to communicate with humanity.
So how can we better employ empathy during a crisis? While far from exhaustive, below are a few tips to consider:
Put yourself in the other people’s shoes. Talk to them from their perspective, not yours. It’s human nature to see things from your point of view, especially when something goes wrong. You want to explain why it happened, or how you’ll fix it. Those things are important, but don’t forget to stop, step back and think about how the people impacted by the crisis feel about the situation. Only then should you determine what your company needs to say and do.
Show understanding. Acknowledge the impact that the situation or events have had on people. Apology is a thorny issue during a crisis, for both communications and legal reasons. Without ignoring that, it’s usually still helpful to show you understand why people are upset, even if you are prohibited from saying you’re sorry for it. It could be as simple as stating, “We understand that people feel our company let them down.”
Use emotional language. Companies are not supposed to feel things, but people do. A former boss of mine used to have a saying for many professional communications: intellectually honest, emotionally vacant. Too many statements are bland recitations of facts; they don’t aim to move their reader emotionally. Companies should try to insert words like “compassion,” “hurt,” “grief,” etc., into responses when appropriate, which will show that their words are heartfelt and they empathize with their audience..
Be open. Show you’re listening but might not have all the answers. In a crisis, companies want to look in command and in control of the situation. They need to be. But they can often talk over the concerns of those they are seeking to address. It’s appropriate to say, “We are listening and learning about what has happened, and we will share more when we’ve heard from all those impacted.”
Be visible. Be seen frequently and, if possible, in person. A crisis is no time to hide. When possible, companies should use personal appearances—or, in light of COVID, video calls—both internally and externally, to put a human face on the company’s response. An empathetic look says a thousand words.
I hope that the above guidance can be helpful to people, not only with their clients, but in their lives. Any one of these tips could be used when dealing with a family member as well as a multinational. We can all do better by being more empathetic, now more than ever.
If you’d like to continue the conversation about empathy in crisis communications, I’d be happy to hear from you—just reach out.