Image for Empathy: Essential, Often Missing Element of Crisis Response

Empathy is an essential element for effective crisis response. Unfortunately, empathy is too often missing in action during crisis responses.

The simplest definition of empathy is understanding and sharing the feelings of another person. Crisis managers tend to focus on the cause of a crisis instead of the pain of those injured by the crisis. The oversight is analogous to marketers who stress a product’s cool features without explaining why the product is practical.

The oversight also may reflect an empathy crisis with increasing numbers of people who have trouble accessing their own feelings, let alone someone else’s. So, even when crisis managers attempt to empathize with victims, their efforts can come across as wooden and inauthentic. Such half-hearted or inept displays of empathy can do more than fail – they can make victims angrier and negatively influence public opinion, especially in the unforgiving lanes of social media.

Empathy for victims isn’t something you can bake into a crisis communication plan. That would be as pointless as including a bunch of cookie-cutter placeholder statements in a plan. Empathy is situational. Victims are uniquely harmed by a specific incident, which requires a unique, specific response. How you respond to victims of an oil spill is drastically different than responding to a blunder such as inappropriately dragging someone off an airplane.

Empathy doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Psychologists suggest empathy is linked to a person’s emotional IQ and their ability to see and acknowledge the pain and loss felt by other people. In my experience, no amount of media training can make you empathetic. The best a media trainer can do is impress upon crisis communicators the importance of empathy, of putting themselves in the shoes of victims, regarding victims like members of their own family.

No amount of media training can make you empathetic. The best a media trainer can do is impress upon crisis communicators the importance of empathy, of putting themselves in the shoes of victims and regarding victims like members of their own family.

Empathy requires action as well as words. That definitely applies to an empathetic crisis response. Telling someone who suffers loss or pain in a crisis situation can humanize the crisis for both the communicator and the victim. Taking concrete steps to address the loss and pain builds trust with crisis victims. Following through on promises to victims cements that trust and can even enhance a reputation.

Empathy has even greater meaning when the person or organization showing it isn’t the cause of the crisis. In the coronavirus pandemic, a number of organizations, brands and individuals have shown empathy for families who have lost loved ones, frontline workers who risk their health everyday and workers who have lost their livelihoods. No one caused the virus to spread. Small acts of kindness and respect to those impacted is a badly needed dose of empathy – for the receiver and the giver.

Expressions of empathy sometimes are avoided for fear it could be construed as an admission of guilt or financial responsibility. That fear shouldn’t deter an authentic, human response because the absence of empathy in the wake of a crisis can turn victims into litigants. That might happen anyway, so an empathetic response can become a mitigating factor in a legal response.

Be on the lookout for CEOs or other senior managers who get rattled by a serious crisis they cannot control and come to see themselves as victims. Do what you have to do internally to quench this feeling, but don’t sacrifice empathy – and humility – for the actual victims of the crisis.

CEOs frequently show what’s called cognitive empathy, which may make them feel good, but lacks any emotional content and can fall flat in the view of crisis victims. Emotional empathy without substance won’t satisfy victims who have lost homes or loved ones. Compassionate empathy works best in crisis response because an official can be understanding, emotionally engaged, yet enough in control to care for how a victim feels and what it will take to ease their pain. Compassionate empathy is a blend of genuine sympathy combined with meaningful action.