How Brands Can Respond To A Crisis With Empathy

By thesanfranciscoegotist / /

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, says Ed Mitzen, founder of a health and wellness marketing agency and ForbesBook author of More Than a Number: The Power of Empathy and Philanthropy in Driving Ad Agency Performance.

“Empathy is the cornerstone of a sustainable and continually successful business – empathy for and between your employees, and by extension empathy for others, especially in times of need,” Mitzen says.

“This value is part of the foundation that makes your 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 you look as a brand, it’s what you do that matters. Consumers want to see companies that through their actions show that they care.”

Mitzen suggests how 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 Mitzen says 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% by getting rid of philanthropy,’ ” Mitzen says. “But doing so further diminishes your culture, dehumanizes the company, and sends mixed signals about your values. Find a way to make that part of your budget work. If there’s an opportunity to shift your 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 your philanthropy intact while still saving where you can.”
  • 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,” Mitzen says. “Consult your 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 them with dignity and respect. Stress to them that it’s about a global pandemic and not about job performance. Offer to provide any support for them that you can and offer to serve as a reference.”
  • Be sensitive, don’t self-promote. Mitzen says 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, Mitzen emphasizes 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,” Mitzen says. “You don’t want to appear that you’re trying to cash in. That will come back to bite you. This is the time for brands to show empathy and authenticity. That means, as a company, ask yourself questions about how you can help and be human in the process.”

“It’s inspiring to see the different ways brands are giving to those in need,” Mitzen says. “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 Fortune, Forbes, HuffPost, and the Wall Street Journal.


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