Empathy in PR

How to Prioritize Empathy — The Golden Rule in Crisis Communications


For any brand competing in today’s unpredictable marketplace, one thing is certain: the spotlight has never been brighter, no matter your size or industry. Thanks to the prevalence of social media, companies are under pressure to perform with precision at the risk of being scrutinized for any misstep. This makes navigating crises more challenging than ever, but utilizing one Golden Rule can make the bigger stage a place to not only rebound, but to create new customer relationships and followers. The rule is simple: Be empathetic. 

On the surface, it sounds like a simple enough adage to stick to, but even the most well-trained company executives can miss the mark by forgetting it in a crisis communications response. That’s why it’s critical to engage a public relations professional or trusted team of professionals who can work proactively — before a crisis hits — as well as quickly following a crisis to develop response messages rooted in empathy. 

So what does this look like in practice? Below are 4 helpful guideposts to help your brand calm the storm with an empathetic crisis response:

1. DON’T: Wait.

When a crisis hits, every hour spent mulling over how to respond gives the media, competitors, and customers more room to speculate and create narratives of their own. Secure control of the narrative early with a succinct statement right out of the gate, even if an internal strategy is still in development. This can be as simple as stating awareness, and expressing that details are still surfacing. Communicating this with urgency and transparency expresses empathy by telling audiences, at a bare minimum: “We know; and we are on it.”

2. DO: Relate.

Regardless of the nuances that feed the situation, brand spokespersons should strive to relate to how audiences are taking this news in. In the unfortunate event that a company disaster has impacted a child, for example, a spokesperson might harness his or her own perspective as a parent; i.e., “As a father [or mother] …” at the front of the statement. Relating personally, where possible, is an instant connection builder between the person behind the mic and the millions watching or reading behind their screens.

3. DON’T: Qualify.

In some scenarios, brand leaders or figureheads might feel defensive — perhaps the company is under attack by a bad actor, or under misleading circumstances, for example. It’s human nature to feel motivated to “set the record straight” right out of the gate. But especially when the crisis is still fresh, coming out with a defense or a downplay about the narrative is counterintuitive — and breaks down the trust that only empathy can maintain. Rather than a statement that includes a qualifying statement, such as “If I said something offensive …”, leaders should swallow their pride and express acknowledgement to how the issue is being received, such as: “I offended many of you with my response to XYZ issue.” From this empathetic point of connection, brands have an opportunity to rebuild trust — and tactfully set the facts straight. 

4. DO: Take ownership.

Just like the desire to defend is natural, so is the desire to deflect, blame, or defer. After all, the C-suite executives typically tasked with delivering a crisis response are also the ones with the most behind-the-scenes insight into the crisis. But the harsh truth is this: Something still went wrong, and at this point, that fact is top of mind to audiences. Save the explanations for later, and come out strong with a response that channels empathy to say: “This happened on our watch, and it was unacceptable.”

In everything you do, remember: The more you engage the experiences of others in your brand’s response, the more they will see themselves in your brand in the long-term. Are you ready to build out an empathetic, rock-solid crisis communication plan of action for your brand? Reach out to our experienced PR team at Brandon aeckley@tbaww.com

Amanda Eckley

Allison Eckley

Senior Public Relations Manager

Allison is the Senior PR Manager at Brandon. A Winston-Salem, N.C. native and East Carolina grad, Allison has worked in politics, clean energy, and creative agencies. A mom of three, Allison enjoys dance parties with her kids and walking her Golden Retriever, Millie, when she’s not pitching compelling client stories to media.

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