How Brands Can Respond to a Crisis with Empathy

by Ed Mitzen

A public crisis often results in a call to action. The COVID-19 pandemic is the latest and perhaps largest case in point, hitting every aspect of American society and prompting the need for aid, whether it comes from federal and state government agencies or from a small restaurant owner serving free meals to the unemployed and homeless.

Some well-known U.S. brands are helping, too, illuminating different ways businesses can show social responsibility at a time of great social strife. The uplifting theme throughout is that empathy is not in short supply. Empathy is the cornerstone of a sustainable and continually successful business — empathy for and between a business’s employees and, by extension, empathy for others, especially in times of need.

This value is part of the foundation that makes a business’s people want to perform and want to do good for others. Now more than ever, people want to work for companies they feel are making a positive impact in the world. The COVID-19 pandemic is showing that beyond how an organization looks as a brand, it’s what it does that matters. Consumers want to see companies that, through their actions, show that they care.

These are some ways brands can respond with empathy both to employees and consumers during a crisis:

Don’t slash philanthropy. Budgets often have to be trimmed in a crisis, but the giving category should remain a priority. It’s very easy for someone making a budget to say, “We’re going to increase our margin by 3 percent by getting rid of philanthropy.” But doing so further diminishes that company’s culture, dehumanizes the company, and sends mixed signals about its values.

Businesses should find a way to make that part of their budget work. If there’s an opportunity to shift the corporate giving strategy to focus less on finances and more on donated time or goods, try taking that route. It’s a great way to keep the company’s philanthropy intact while still saving wherever possible.

Manage layoffs with compassion. The difficult economic consequences of COVID-19 have forced many companies to release workers they would otherwise retain. A public health situation out of businesses’ control makes decisions about layoffs, and delivering the news to an employee, extra difficult compared to other situations.

Although the need to cut costs is understandable, a leader should think with empathy and creativity when deciding. Business leaders should consult their managerial team about how the company can save as many jobs as possible. What are the other options to reduce costs? If some layoffs are still necessary, take extra care to tell the employee with empathy and compassion and treat him or her with dignity and respect. Stress that it’s about a global pandemic and not about job performance. Offer to provide any support for them that the company can and offer to serve as a reference.

Be sensitive, don’t self-promote. The purest and most effective way to help during a crisis is to proactively provide solutions to help people cope with the emergency. While showing social responsibility can be good public relations for business, there’s a fine line at such a stressful time between a company being perceived as opportunistic or relevantly helpful. Brands need to display sensitivity in tragedies and natural disasters. They don’t want to appear that they’re trying to cash in. That will come back to bite them.

This is the time for brands to show empathy and authenticity. That means company leaders should ask themselves questions about how they (and their company) can help and be human in the process.

It’s inspiring to see the different ways brands are giving to those in need. This pandemic will change some things about how companies do business, and I expect that social responsibility will rise on the priority list for many brands.

Ed Mitzen is the ForbesBook author of More Than a Number: The Power of Empathy and Philanthropy in Driving Ad Agency Performance and the founder of Fingerpaint, an independent advertising agency grossing $60 million in revenue. A health and wellness marketing entrepreneur for 25 years, Mitzen also built successful firms CHS and Palio Communications. Fingerpaint has been included on the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing companies for seven straight years and garnered agency of the year nominations and wins from MM&M, Med Ad News, and PM360. Mitzen was named Industry Person of the Year by Med Ad News in 2016 and a top boss by Digiday in 2017. A graduate of Syracuse University with an MBA from the University of Rochester, Mitzen has written for I, Forbes, HuffPost and The Wall Street Journal.

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