Our colleague, Colin Lovering was hearing so many differing views on corporate communications that, in the spirit of working from home, he turned to his wife Corina, an expert in the field for her views and insights into what organisations need to focus on this coming year.
“When I start to like somebody and get close to them it is usually because they knew how to show empathy and support to me when I was going through some rough times. Empathy is the quality that makes me want to build a bond with somebody. If they are empathetic then they are most probably compassionate and kind too and this means that I can trust them. If I can trust them, then I can easily share my thoughts and anxieties with them and feel comforted by their presence and advice. Also, if I can trust them, they can influence and inspire me. This is the power of empathy and most of all, of empathetic messages.
Anxiety, fear and concern have probably been the most intense and frequent feelings the majority of us have been experiencing during the COVID-19 pandemic, whether they are related to personal and family health, finances, job security, isolation or other factors. In difficult times we all need somebody who understands what we are going through and knows what to say to make us feel better. Those are the people we will value most. The people who stood by us through thin. Friends and family are obviously the most important support system, but when something with such a wide-spread impact happens we look at those who set the rules in the environment we live in, for reassurance, guidance and advice.
Power balance shift
The new reality created by the pandemic has changed the power balance pushing brands and leaders with dominant powerful rhetoric down and pulling leaders that displayed empathy and kindness in their messages, up. Companies and political leaders that sympathize with the anxiety of their audiences, through empathetic messages backed by actions that show care and prudence have more chances to succeed and gain loyalty and new adepts during the pandemic.
When empathy and practical support go hand in hand
Kantar’s COVID-19 Barometer Wave 1 research shows that these days people prefer that brands provide reassurance to the communities, but also talk about what they can do to help the society. Empathy is important and impactful however people also expect practical support and advice from brands. Kantar analyzed several ads that launched in Germany after the coronavirus and discovered that ads which showed how the brand can help in practical terms performed better than those that just provided emotional reassurance. Banks and automotive companies adjusting grace periods for mortgage or car payments, are good examples of businesses that backed their empathetic messages with practical help.
At the same time 74% of those interviewed believe that brands should not exploit the current situation to promote themselves. In other words, companies can continue to promote their products and services in adds that do not reference the pandemic but focus on the emotional and practical help they can provide to their audience in adds that are related to the pandemic. This way the support and the brand are perceived as genuine and are more likely to resonate with the consumers.
In times of distress, incorporating both emotional and practical messages is what makes the audience most receptive to a brand’s external communications strategy.
Keeping employees happy and thriving
One of the important conclusions of Mercer’s 2020 Global Talent Trends Study is that happy, motivated employees, with successful careers are twice as likely to work for a company that displays empathy and makes decisions taking into account not only economic factors, but also the emotional impact of these decisions on the employees.
Keeping the employees motivated and focused during difficult times, when health, isolation and childcare challenges add to the normal professional challenges, requires empathy from the employer. Companies that have adopted flexible work from home policies and developed their HR and internal communications strategies showing care and understanding for the needs of their employees are more likely to come out successful at the other end of this crisis.
After all, company culture can make or break an organization, a strong culture leads to hardworking, loyal employees and therefore increased productivity and profit which equals to a thriving company. Empathy and sheer humanity are now the fundamentals of this culture.
The impact of empathetic appeal vs war rhetoric in political messages
In times of strain the ability of heads of state to communicate efficiently to positively influence citizens’ perceptions, behaviours and attitudes is crucial. Throughout the pandemic, some leaders chose strong practical messages to do so, others relied on empathy to convey their messages.
The research “Word Matter: Political and gender analysis of speeches made by heads of government during the COVID-19 pandemic”, authored by Sara Dada, Henry Ashworth, Marlene Joannie Bewa and Roopa Dhatt noted that while the difference is not statistically significant, countries led by women have seen better public health metrics in terms of COVID-19 response compared to countries led by men.
The most likely reason for this conclusion is that citizens’ behaviors are likely influenced by political leaders’ messages and calls to action or inaction.
Male leaders tended to use more war rhetoric and their speeches focused on “fighting the enemy”, while women tended to use empathetic appeals. In one of her speeches German Chancellor Angela Merkel compassionately stressed the importance of community and of every human life, over statics: “[…] these are not just abstract numbers in statistics, but this is about a father or grandfather, a mother or grandmother, a partner – this is about people. And we are a community in which each life and each person counts.” (Live from the Chancellery [Germany]; Die Bundeskanzlerin; 2020)
Almost all world leaders talked about the financial impact of COVID-19 on families and companies and the support the government is ready to offer. The US president Donald Trump spoke about supporting both large corporations and small businesses in his speeches, but the references to small businesses were significantly fewer. In opposition, Scotland’s Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon stated in an address on March 22nd: “To the vast majority of employers I say this – the solution to the challenges that I know you are facing now is not key worker status. It is new shift patterns, it is working from home, it is dropping non-essential tasks. And that is what you can do to help all of us save lives.” (First Minister’s Speeches [Scotland]: Scottish Government; 2020.
At the same time, there were also a few male world leaders that spoke about the support provided to business owners. French President Emmanuel Macron was one of them: “We will not add the fear of bankruptcy for entrepreneurs, concerns about unemployment and the challenge of making ends meet at the end of the month to health worries. Every effort will therefore be made to protect our employees and to protect our companies, regardless of the cost”, Macron said. (Official speeches & statements 2020, The Embassy of France in the United States).
During the first pandemic wave, when the number of cases was quickly rising, the New Zealand Government sent emergency text alerts to citizens telling them to stay home and to observe social distancing. To comfort the citizens and encourage them to act responsibly, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hosted a Facebook Live from her home to answer questions. Ardern quickly connected to the audience by showing them her human side. She apologized for wearing a casual green jumper and explained that she had just put her daughter to bed. “Excuse the casual attire, it can be a messy business putting toddlers to bed so I’m not in my work clothes,” she said. Jacinda Arden concluded her live session with a powerful message: “Remember stay at home, break the chain, and you’ll save lives” (CNN News, March 26th 2020).
Communicating to diverse audiences during times of crisis is tough. Listening to the voice of reason and relying on experience acquired while dealing with what seems to be similar crisis situations is not always enough. Sometimes you have to let your heart and intuition steer the wheel and see where they take you, while remaining vigilant and agile to a certain extent. You might discover a new effective approach that you can use in the future. In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic balancing emotional messages with practical help looks like the right answer.”
Op-ed by Corina Lovering