Maintaining Trust and Demonstrating Empathy are Critical in Uncertain Times

As legendary boxer Mike Tyson once said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the
mouth.” These jabs and sucker punches to the face seem to be exactly what’s happening now
as the coronavirus moves around the world. This is no ordinary disruption or regular crisis, it’s
rapidly becoming a full-blown glacial meltdown.

Maybe this is what the band from Athens, Georgia, meant when they called themselves
Widespread Panic?

While many companies and organizations have crisis plans for an active shooter, a financial
dilemma, fraud or hurricane, no one—not even governments—has prepared for the global
crisis we are facing today in COVID-19. But in this unchartered territory—let’s remember that
the basics and fundamentals of a good response still apply.

As communications strategists and crisis professionals, we are getting many questions from
organizations about what to consider in how they communicate in these uncertain times. Even
though this is a unique situation, it’s important to remember the fundamentals, protocols and
best practices in managing a crisis.

While the world is literally closing down, your communications, both internal and external,
should not. In fact, it might even be time to ramp up how you talk about your organization. As
with any crisis, there is usually an opportunity lurking in the shadows.

First, when managing any fragile issue, it is critical to maintain Trust. The communications
business is about getting people to care. People must trust that a company’s leadership is living
up to the stated values of the organization and protecting the health and well-being of the
entity they are charged to protect. Good leaders consider their entire universe, including
customers, members, employees, regulators, investors and anyone else who matters. Maybe
your company is doing many positive things, but if your own stakeholders don’t know about it,
then your actions might not make a difference to those people who matter.

Trust is simply understood by the consequence of a promises fulfilled—or not. This includes
both implicit specific promises—like the delivery of milk or internet service—or explicit, such as
living up to brand identity. Are the expectations being met? Trust can get tricky because
sometimes these expectations are defined by us, but many times expectations are set by others
and are beyond our control.

The first rule of a crisis is understanding that trust is built and maintained by living up to these
stated values. Benjamin Franklin said it correctly: “It takes many good deeds to build a good
reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.” Despite the best laid plans, other actors will
appear, resources may not materialize, your coalition may fall apart, the council vote may be
cancelled or the state capitol is closed. Good leaders keep marching on through the crisis.
The defining criteria in a successful response is to be able to put yourself into the position of
those who have expectations. How do those interests expect you to act? Good leaders
understand that a response is not about personal preference, but what others expect of them
in certain situations. The good news is, to a certain degree, it is possible to map those interests.
What this means is that we expect our leaders to Care. In any crisis response we must act and
show people that we care. We cannot just tell them we care, but must show them that we care
through our actions. The single biggest mistake in a crisis is indifference. Only by a consistent
demonstration of empathy, can we maintain confidence during a crisis. Any crisis response
strategy must begin with a declaration of why we care and our values.

There can be a sense not to communicate until we know more. (That day may not come!)
Sometimes lawyers may not want to say anything because public statements can carry some
risk, or will write something that only makes sense to a judge and not to the Court of Public
Opinion. In fact, we frequently have a push-pull relationship with attorneys with how and when
to respond. This can be healthy. (Nothing against lawyers…I’m married to one!)

However, not communicating is counterproductive. Silence is interpreted as indifference. Why
aren’t we hearing anything? It invites opportunists to join the conversation. If we aren’t
defining ourselves, then others will do it for us. There is a rubric in a crisis that the longer the
silence continues the less control we have over the outcome.

There is a well-known concept in literature on crisis communications called First Mover
Advantage. This provides a particularly good comparative position because it allows the first
person who acts to define the nature of crisis, control their own actions instead of reacting to
someone else, and to affirm their own motives and values. In essence we have more control
over our environment and set the terms and language of the debate. In fact, when I worked
with journalist Hunter S. Thompson to free a woman from prison, he told me that the actual
definition of the word Politics is: The Art of Controlling Your Environment.

And how do we know when it is time to take action in a crisis? Helio Fred Garcia, author of The
Agony of Decision: Mental Readiness and Leadership in a Crisis says there are four criteria we
can get agreement on in advance if we should take action, or if something is indeed a crisis:
Will those who matter to us expect us to do something now?
Will silence be seen as not caring or as affirmation of some kind of guilt?
Are others speaking about us and shaping opinion to those who matter to us?
If we wait, do we lose the ability to determine the outcome?

If the answer to one of the questions is Yes, then it is time to act. Assemble a crisis team and
know who is in the bunker and calling the shots.

Our advice is to keep your reputation and brand strong during this time of uncertainty and
shutdown. Your organization should show leadership by becoming part of the solution. What
can your people do to help that might not involve personal contact? Maybe preparing lunches
for school kids who don’t have them, delivering meals on wheels or offering online courses and
professional development. Keep communicating and being transparent. Keep your company
active and engaged with your clients, vendors and stakeholders. Keep constantly assessing both
worst and best scenarios.

Like most bad situations, chaos, pain and challenge usually brings some kind of opportunity or
silver lining. What can these hardships teach us? Possibly to show more gratitude for the
blessings in life? Appreciate your colleagues more? Maybe use the opportunity to practice
mindfulness and meditation. Bring a sharper focus to your work. A crisis can be good time to
reset and recalibrate. There is nothing like a crisis as a filter for what’s really important.
Even though we are in unchartered waters with COVID-19, we must demonstrate how we care
and we must show empathy. Arrogance and denial make empathy impossible. In this time, we
strongly suggest using direct language. Don’t dance around an issue, be honest with your
employees, customers and stakeholders. For instance, don’t say you are not laying off people
when you actually are.

Most importantly, don’t forget to take care of yourself. As a person in a crisis, we can’t afford to
be panicked or fearful.

We must remember that people are feeling incredibly vulnerable and afraid—both personally
and professionally. Trust and empathy in our communications are more important than ever.
The job of good leadership is to convey a positive, but practical, attitude, to constantly assess,
remain forward-looking in this difficult time and prevent panic. While it feels like the world has
been sucker punched in the face like our legendary boxer Mike Tyson, we must stand tall and
keep on swinging.

Matthew L. Moseley is a partner and chief strategy officer at dovetail solutions. He is also the
author of Dear Dr. Thompson: Felony Murder, Hunter S. Thompson and the Last Gonzo
Campaign and also has completed four first-ever world record adventure swims.