Articulating empathy in uncertain times

By Anna Wolfram

As an industry, ‘disruption’ has permeated our vocabulary over the past few years, but never has this word carried more prominence than right now. Brands that have built their reputation as disruptors, suddenly find themselves disrupted, lost for words and desperate for support. Many businesses and individuals are battling to find the right words to communicate with customers for fear of insensitivity, and therefore, articulating an appropriate tone is more important than ever.

With many fearing the unknown as it is, your customers do not want to be left in the dark; now is not the time for silence. Words have the power to support, to reassure and to alleviate some (though not all) concerns during uncertain times. Conversely, words also have the ability to agitate and cause brands reputational damage when used irresponsibly.

Timing and relativity

As uncertainty intensifies, waiting for the full story before communicating information to your customers is futile. Situations are changing daily, and therefore it’s perfectly acceptable to share a well-articulated work in progress before your message becomes redundant. Let your customers know the initial measures you are taking and that you will be in contact in coming days with further developments. Keeping a close eye on live updates from the government, industry bodies and health organisations will ensure that the timing of delivery is still relevant.

Empathy and authenticity

Though circumstances and challenges will differ from one individual to the next, right now, we can all relate in some capacity. When communicating with your clients, negate irrational and impulsive messaging in a bid to secure custom, and remain calm in tone of voice, regardless of the turmoil your business is facing. Your audiences want to believe that your concern for them and for your own employees is authentic. This requires a new degree of transparency that many businesses are not used to, nor are comfortable with. Putting yourself in the shoes of your clients will help you deliver messaging that remains sensitive and helpful to build trust for the future.


We may use words with the purest intentions that carry accidental undertones of offence and insensitivity. When emotions are heightened, our words carry more weight than usual and therefore our responsibility is greater. Something as insignificant as a premature full stop could be perceived as abrupt and lacking emotion. Written communication should consider specific word choice with an acute awareness of posed risk of insensitivity, such as using ‘consumers’ to denote a collective of people who at this time are doing very little ‘consuming’. Businesses have the opportunity to get creative with their vocabulary, for example replacing ‘consumers’ with ‘supporters’, or a brand-related term to invoke a unique community identity, as ‘Beliebers’ are to Justin Bieber. The subtlety of reassurance through words such as ‘when’, instead of ‘if’, should not be undervalued when communicating the light at the end of the tunnel.

Balancing optimism and reality

There’s a fine line between communicating positivity and a false sense of security on a hugely delicate topic of which most are not experts. To avoid dismissive inferences and suggestions of intentional deceit, you can model realistic optimism that is based on adaptable scenarios, rather than specific timelines. Productive and practical help that you’re certain you can implement can offer a positive spin on otherwise challenging circumstances. Realism and optimism are not diametrically opposed and therefore businesses should not ignore the challenges that lie ahead, but can remain positive and encouraging in their messaging, praising the work of their teams and the wider industry for the support that has already been offered.


Be pre-emptive in your tone. There’s an art to conveying kindness and authority in the same sentence, and it largely comes down to leading the charge in thoughtful initiatives. Businesses have an opportunity to demonstrate their value, before they’re asked, and can save a lot of time answering the same offline questions time and time again. Proactively announce changes to your business and how they may affect your customers, detailing the alternative scenarios that you propose to minimise disruption. What are you offering as a gesture of goodwill? Be clear that any webinars you recommend, top tips you share, or gifts you offer are purely for the benefit of your customers during difficult times.