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Putting Empathy Back into Crisis Communications

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Data, statistics, figures, and graphs are all important when dealing with a crisis, but they are worth nothing if they are not focused on one thing – people. Dealing with a crisis means dealing with the impact on people. They must be at the centre of your crisis communication response to be truly effective.

For many years we have been concerned with ensuring that the right crisis plans are in place, the procedures are in place and the policies we need have been created and all these are important. However, they have lacked the most important element of people; those plans, policies, and procedures we have laboured over are incomplete if they forget about the people affected.

Why people need to be front and centre to all communication

Over the years we have seen a crisis happen, plans and a framework for the response are put in place, and people are told what they should or should not do. Organizations talk at people to ensure they can focus on the practicalities of the response. People are at the end of the considerations and in some cases seen as an inconvenience to tackling the crisis. Yet, it is not enough to take this approach anymore, as we are seeing with organizations responding to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Putting humanity and empathy into the communication response during a crisis means putting the requirements of the brand, business, or organization in a secondary position. The reputation of the company will come from doing the right thing for people who have been affected by the crisis. It may be those directly affected, indirectly caught up in the events, or asked by the business to respond to the incident - whoever they are, you must have them at the heart of your communication response plan.

What is the role of empathy in communications?

Empathy is about really showing that you understand what has happened, but also that you understand the impact that it has had on people, their lives, families, and dreams. You can go some way to feeling the same sense of loss, pain or fear that they feel, and you can demonstrate all of this in what is said about the events that have happened.

It is more than just saying the right thing, it is about doing the right thing and then living what is being said. When you can bring all that together with a leader who demonstrates humanity and empathy, you are much more likely to be effective with your communication. But it is not just about the person at the top or who goes before the camera - humanity and empathy can be incorporated in every word, sentence and statement that is prepared from your organization.

The requirements of a communication response built on humanity and empathy are different. There needs to be attention to the little things that demonstrate people are at the heart of the considerations. There needs to be leadership that responds in a human and personal way. It is why leaders such as New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, are effective communicators. She manages to appear strong and in control but still as a real person living through the crisis with everyone else.

There needs to come a moment in the response where broadcast communication is replaced by direct engagement with the people who are affected. There needs to be part of the crisis response that is concerned with the wellbeing of employees called to respond to the events.

Communicating the recovery phase of a crisis

Empathy will also drive the recovery phase of the crisis response. People who have been affected may want to find their voice, and your organization needs to be ready to listen. Actively listening to what is said and using it within the recovery plan will demonstrate a mature organization ready to learn. If businesses give their customers, service users or local communities the opportunity to get involved it will build a stronger road out. The voices of those who have been affected need to be heard to help shape the future of successful businesses.

Facts and figures may be what we need to know to start to understand what has happened and what may be going to happen during the crisis, but it is people who make communities and it is their experience that will make the difference.

Have your crisis communication plan, your policies, your framework, and your procedures. Know what those statistics say about what is happening. Carry out the scenario planning. But do all those elements with people at the forefront of your considerations and with humanity and empathy throughout.