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In Crisis Communication, Start with Empathy

Crisis response hinges on two factors: what the organization does and what the organization says. When these halves align, it results in trust and a more positively received and effective response. When they conflict, organizations struggle to recover. In a pandemic, ensuring these elements are carefully calibrated is more essential than ever, says Helio Fred Garcia, a professor of crisis management at New York University and Columbia University. While an organization’s actions during crises depend largely on the circumstances, its communications can rely on a few essential best practices.

Garcia, who is also president of Logos Consulting Group, adds that crisis response around pandemics is inherently different from responding to a natural disaster or a data breach. Natural disasters in particular deeply affect a limited number of people in a specific geographic area. COVID-19, he adds, potentially affects everyone worldwide.

There are six dimensions to the current coronavirus pandemic crisis, Garcia says. It is simultaneously a crisis of public health, business, economics, information and trust, government competence, and society.

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“We need to keep all six of these dimensions in mind because this is a moment where people are hungry for understanding what is happening, but also for comfort in their fear,” Garcia says. “Leaders at every level need to find the balance between conveying a sense of urgency and triggering a panic. And that's a very delicate line, especially as people are feeling personally vulnerable—not only on the public health side and in their work, but also in terms of the economy. And any given stakeholder, at any given time, is simultaneously processing all six of these things. And that makes this crisis unusual.”

In addition, this is the pandemic in the social media age, which fundamentally changes the nature of crisis response, Garcia tells Security Management. This means organizations and crisis managers must prepare for the rapid spread of misinformation, panic, and criticism. It also presents opportunities for self-reflection, benchmarking against other organizations’ responses, information gathering, and outreach to people affected by the crisis.

Safeguard Trust

Pivoting classic crisis communications practices to pandemic-appropriate ones requires a shift in perspective: Ask not “what should we do,” but instead “what do reasonable people—from the board to employees to the public—expect us to do?” The coronavirus pandemic also adds another layer to this decision-making process: evaluate what other organizations or similar groups are doing, Garcia says.

One of the most valuable assets an organization has during a crisis is trust, both from internal and external stakeholders and customers. Trust is primarily established based on three factors, Garcia says: promises fulfilled, expectations met, and when an organization’s stated values are lived experiences. For the former, be careful of what promises the organization makes to the public or to employees; in a rapidly evolving situation, those promises might need to be broken. For the latter, he explains, if an organization declares that it has a mission of kindness and charity, but acts in an unkind or uncharitable way, people lose trust in that organization.

Regarding meeting expectations, “we need to be deeply attentive to the quickly evolving expectations that reasonable people have,” Garcia adds. In an environment where it’s easier to see what other institutions are doing—whether through social media or news outlets—the public can quickly evaluate new standards of care and judge organizations accordingly. Once large-scale events started to cancel in response to the spread of COVID-19, for example, people expected other events to follow suit.

Organizations can help set expectations by clearly establishing who holds what role during crisis response and whom people should expect to hear from with new directions or updates. Without absolute clarity on who is involved and where to turn for information, the response can be perceived as confusing or even untrustworthy—even if the crisis managers have matters well in hand.

Maintaining trust is significantly easier than regaining it. It is unlikely that organizations—and countries—that lost their stakeholders’ or citizens’ trust will regain it during the coronavirus pandemic, Garcia adds.

Empathize

In every crisis, Garcia says, stakeholders expect leaders to care; an expression of empathy is a necessary first step to demonstrating a commitment to fulfilling that expectation.

“One of the things that people are looking for is ratification of their feeling of emotional fragility,” he notes. “And when I look at the best statements, whether it's from CEOs or from university presidents or others, one of the things that I find that is most helpful is a statement that begins with an acknowledgment of people's anxieties, fears, or uncertainty and feelings of vulnerability. When they do that first, the communication tends to work reasonably well.”

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Even if the message includes an acknowledgment or wish for wellbeing or health later on, people will likely have tuned out or stopped reading by that point, Garcia says. Start with an empathetic statement, then outline the big picture and action items needed to realize it.

The tone for crisis communications must be set at the top, Garcia adds, but communication from the top alone is insufficient. Consider an organization like a series of concentric circles, with the CEO in the center to the customers or employees on the outer ring, he says. The CEO communicates out across the organization, but that message is followed by communication from the next ring, and the next, and the next, radiating outward in persistent, aligned messages that drive action as well as cohesion.

When in doubt, Garcia says, overcommunicate.

“Some people won’t have seen or heard the first few messages that you did but will need to hear from you at some point, whether you’re the CEO or the head of security or others,” he says. “The communication needs to be empathetic; it needs to be aligned with the rest of the institution’s communication, at least thematically; and it needs to be clear and avoid euphemism. One of the common missteps is to refer to ‘this unfortunate circumstance,’ as supposed to ‘one of our people has been diagnosed with COVID-19.’ The use of euphemism—which is perceived as an evasion of responsibility by some—has the tendency to confuse, and if we’re already in an information crisis, we need to avoid using communication that would create confusion.”

Garcia notes that “one of the best practices in crisis response is to name the problem with clarity.”

In addition, be mindful of emotions. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey conducted in mid-March 2020, four in 10 Americans say their life had been disrupted “a lot” or “some” as a result of the pandemic, and many worried that they or a family member would get sick (62 percent), that retirement or college savings would be negatively affected (51 percent), or that they would be unable to afford testing or treatment for COVID-19 (36 percent). Among workers, especially those in lower income households, 53 percent said they were worried they would lose income due to a workplace closure or reduced hours. These sorts of concerns trigger emotional reactions, which can hamper effective crisis communication.

“People who are emotionally wrought need to be connected with emotionally first,” Garcia says. “You can’t meet emotion with reasoned facts or data. You can only meet emotion with emotion and move people with you.”

The challenge is to be direct and factual after creating an emotionally safe connection. For security professionals, this is especially difficult, seeing as they are often seeking to convey the significance of a threat without panicking the CEO.

“That requires a certain degree of artfulness in the communication,” Garcia says. “People in the C-suite are feeling fragile and vulnerable. They know they’re not going to make their numbers this year. They know that they’re going to have to change a whole bunch of operations. They know that their employees are not productive anymore. So there’s a fair amount of institutional anxiety at the top of the institution, and people at the top may be struggling with feelings of powerlessness.”

By meeting those feelings with acknowledgment and empathy, as well as a solutions-focused attitude instead of a hopeless one, good communications can drive crisis response forward.

“Emotions are contagious. Panic is contagious. Fear is contagious. Anger is contagious,” Garcia says. “But comfort is also contagious. Expression of sympathy is also contagious. Expressions of empathy are also contagious. Expressions of kindness are also contagious. And so the challenge is to be direct, factually, after creating an emotionally safe connection.”

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