What is empathy? How can brands put it into action during a crisis?

When we run crisis simulations, we look for the participants to respond using empathy. 

What we often see is teams that prepare an official statement on the crisis, and then copy and paste part or all of that statement to social media. 

Not just in a general update post, but as responses to countless individuals who are all worried about different aspects of the crisis. 

These people all have their own stories, and the formulaic response is frequently jarring.

When we give the participants feedback, we discuss the need for a response that uses natural-sounding language and expresses empathy.

But what is empathy? How is it different from sympathy?

Empathy is more than sympathy.

Sympathy is empathy at a distance.

I can see that someone is going through a tough time, and that makes me feel bad for them. I may take action as a result of feeling bad for that person – like send them a card (or, we’re talking about a brand, I may tweet something along the lines of “we’re sorry about the disruption to your service”), but it still feels a bit arm’s length.

Empathy is having the ability to imagine yourself in the other person’s position. But that’s not enough really is it? During any kind of crisis, personal or work-related, we only know that a person or brand has empathy for our situation if they take action.

Aaron Sorkin sums it up nicely in this West Wing Scene:

But, there’s more than one kind of empathy.

Psychologist, Paul Ekman, argues that there are three kinds of empathy:

Cognitive

Cognitive empathy is being able to see a situation from the other person’s perspective, but with enough distance not to feel it personally. 

For example, if you’re a cable TV, phone and internet provider and the service in an area goes down, instead of thinking: “we need to get this back quickly, or people will start complaining, and we could lose customers”, or “why does this person keep tweeting? We said that it could take until 8pm?”, the social media team think: “A lot of our customers depend on the TV as their only form of entertainment, we need to sort this out for them. Some of them might call in to chat to us about it”, or “The system says that this account holder works from home, they must be panicking about having no internet connection. We need to get this fixed quickly.”

Emotional

Emotional empathy is when you start to take on the other person’s emotions. For example, if the crisis team is dealing with a major incident, and people are calling a helpline in tears, worried about a relative’s safety, the person they are calling for help may start to feel just as upset because they’re imagining what it would be like to be in that situation themselves.

The big problem with this type of empathy, in the long-term, is that if you don’t find a way to manage it, it can lead to burnout. In the short-term, this empathy may not be helpful as the last thing most people want when they are contacting someone for help is to hear them breakdown too.

It’s why we recommend that the crisis communications team works in shifts during a sustained crisis. You want your team to be empathetic, but it comes with a risk that they’ll be overwhelmed by the range of emotional responses.

Compassionate

With compassionate empathy, you feel what the other person is feeling, but you can use that emotion to think of the best way to help them through the situation. It’s asking, “what can I do to help?” or “would it help if I..?”

It’s a useful ability for crisis communication professionals to have because it allows them to feel and express appropriate kinds of empathy, while also giving them the insight they need to make the situation right.

However, even if the brand has a stellar cast of empathetic communication specialists working for it, they still need to have the permission to express themselves to people during the crisis, and it helps if they have the authority to act. For example, are they allowed to credit the customer’s account or give them a large discount off their service as a way to compensate them for disruption? 

Words can be hard enough to get right, but empathy can often seem hollow if it’s not followed by action.

How brands can act and communicate with empathy during a crisis

  • Let customer service representatives spend a longer time talking to customers on the phone. Let them talk to them like people – rather than treating them as a problem or following a strict script.
  • Give the social media team permission to adapt brand messaging per platform and individual.
  • Listen and ask questions. People often communicate why the problem is so frustrating for them. Were they in the middle of watching a TV show that everyone is tweeting about? Do they need to get an urgent report done? Maybe their boss isn’t sure about this virtual working thing, and the internet goes down right in the middle of an important Google Hangout. Show these people that you understand that this isn’t just a service issue, but something that impacts their life.
  • Follow-up where possible. If you’ve had a long conversation with someone about problems with their service, and the issue’s supposed to be being sorted out, check-in with them later to ensure that everything is sorted out. It’s a great way to show people that chatting with them wasn’t just about managing an issue, but that you’re genuinely concerned that they are okay.

Photo by Rémi Walle on Unsplash

Gemma is Polpeo’s Content Specialist. She develops the crisis storylines and writes social content for Polpeo. She is the principal voice of Polpeo on Twitter, and blogs on PR Examples and carrotcomms.co.uk/blog.

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