News and Insights

Empathy: the heart of crisis communications

April 29, 2013

“I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.”
― Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

We work with a lot of different B2B companies in many tough industries where the likely consequence of any accident or natural disaster or criminal act could be serious injury or loss of life. Most of these companies have a crisis management plan in place and the really smart ones have regular drills to make sure the system works like it is supposed to.

Today, we have helped fulfill a growing number of requests for not just media training, but specifically for crisis communications training from our B2B clients here in Asia. They are starting to realize that the operational aspect of managing a crisis is not enough. For a company to survive a crisis, it must also have a crisis communications process and mindset in place.

A week ago we conducted crisis communications training for one of our B2B clients. As always, we went through the usual definitions of “issues versus crises”, why crisis communications is important, how you can develop and deliver the right messages, and the best practices we can learn from others who’ve gone before. During the training, we talked to them about the importance of addressing both the facts and feelings involved when communicating with the public and the media.

The thing is, in a crisis situation, no matter how much you prepare, things will not always go according to plan. That is the nature of a crisis.

When developing messages for a crisis situation, it is important to resist a defensive stance by allocating blame all too quickly to someone else. That approach more likely than not will create the feeling that you are shirking your responsibility. So what should you do?

  • Focus on the victims – Don’t just say it, show it. Tell people how you are helping the victims and the families in a tangible way. Sometimes during a crisis, the tendency is to hunker down and share as little information as possible. Your willingness to clarify and explain what you have done to help the victims and how you have done it will go a long way in demonstrating your commitment.
  • Be genuine – People can smell a fake a mile away. Saying the right words won’t be enough. You have to address the emotion in a sincere way and show real concern. If your organization and your people are able and willing to act and react with empathy, you have won half the battle for hearts and minds.

Rick Clements, whom I worked for during my Singapore Airlines’ days – and for whom I have a lot of respect – conducted his inaugural course on empathy just last Friday. For those of you who remember the SQ006 crash on 31 October 2000, you will understand why Rick has the credibility to deliver such a program. A relative of one of the victims came to one the press conferences obviously distraught and demanding answers. As the audience watched in stunned silence, instead of calling security, Rick walked quickly to the man, put an arm around him and offered him quiet words of comfort. Now, that is empathy.

Was this in the Singapore Airlines’ very thick, very comprehensive crisis manual? Probably not. But was it the right thing to do? Absolutely.

Empathy in a crisis situation is critical as it demonstrates to the world that you and your organization honestly care about the victims. When it comes down to it, empathy is that pain in your gut when you see someone else suffering. It is that very human, very instinctive reaching out to someone in need.

Remember that. It makes all the difference in the world.