Empathy in crisis messaging seems to be counterproductive to some, but relating to communicate is a surefire way to gain your audience’s trust during a crisis. Disasters happen every day and we as communicators are faced with the difficult task of relaying emergency information to communities. What do we say to those who have lost so much? What words of encouragement do we have to those who have lost everything they own, worse yet, their loved ones? How do we prepare others for what we know will be a cataclysmic event? These are all questions that communicators must ask themselves well in advance of any potential disaster as we traverse down apocalyptic rabbit holes. Doing so, however, must be more than giving information. It must lead to transformation for our crisis message to hit the hearts of our audience so that it is heard then acted upon.

If you want to be heard, you need to know how to listen. Good communication allows the listener to be heard and understood, but how many of us have ever felt that when we’re speaking, our recipient wasn’t truly listening to us? Maybe it was evident that as we spoke, we could tell that the other person was already thinking about their rebuttal before we were finished with our own thoughts. We especially notice this trend with politicians and leaders. It can be evident when those in charge are communicating for a purpose and that purpose isn’t “us.” It becomes difficult for us to relate to them because they are not relating to us.  The lack of empathy can be evident to many, but spokespersons and leaders are often not trained to exhibit empathy effectively to reach their audience. If that’s the case, then what exactly is the role of empathy in crisis messaging during a disaster?

Empathy differs from sympathy.  With empathy, we share the pain with others.  In a disaster, we should infuse statements of empathy within the first thirty seconds of our message. Photo provided by Adobe Stock

To better understand empathy on a foundational level, it’s a good idea to discuss its difference with sympathy. I often tell students that I can sympathize with them when they have a broken leg even though I’ve never experienced the pain that a broken leg brings with it. I imagine it hurts them, but since I’ve never had a broken leg, I can’t connect with the struggles they are experiencing. In other words, it’s difficult for me to share in their agony. Empathy, on the other hand, connects me with the pain of others. Maybe I can’t understand a broken leg, but maybe I’ve broken my arm which enables me to understand the struggle of the other person. Maybe we can empathize with others who have experienced divorce, heartache, or lost a parent to death. If someone can empathize with you, then your chances of connecting with that person increase dramatically and opens the door to more intimate communication in which trust can be built. This is especially relevant when we include empathy in crisis messaging during any stage of a disaster, including the pre-planning stages when most of our communication work should occur.

The same process holds true during a disaster or crisis. Imagine you are in the shoes of your listener. How would you best receive the information you needed in the initial stages of a disaster? Empathy in crisis messaging both accepts and allows various perspectives and emotions in other people and is used to enable encouragement and support from your audience. As you communicate with empathy throughout the phases of a crisis, you place yourself in the role of active listener to understand the emotions of who you’re communicating with. During a disaster, scholars recognize that empathy in crisis messaging comes with strategic benefits for organizations in crisis, as a community’s negative reactions to crises are soothed when they feel that the organization is empathetic toward victims. This builds trust with the audience who becomes more apt to act upon the recommendations of the organization, which is vital during a crisis or emergency.

Communication is a highly complicated, imperfect practice on a typical day. When a disaster occurs, our ability to communicate becomes an overly complicated matter because we’re not emotionally wired to understand messages when our senses are heightened to fear and anxiety. During a disaster, we process and act upon information differently. In fact, disaster psychologists often recommend that we present information in terms that a sixth grader would understand because our minds resort to more rudimentary “fight or flight” natures.  We not only need guidance, we need comfort. In a state of confusion, we look to leaders and spokespersons to relate to us in a way that exemplifies their understanding of our grief. In other words, they empathize with us.

"If you want to demonstrate empathy in crisis messaging and build trust with your audience, then understanding your audience should be front and center of any effort to reach them."

Empathy in Crisis Messaging is the KEY to Building Trust

Listening is a developed skill when using empathy in crisis messaging. Put yourself in your listener's shoes and think about the kindest way to say what needs to be said. Take responsibility for your communication and be as interested in listening as you are in speaking. Too often, we communicators run the risk of speaking and not listening. “If they would only listen to me, they could avoid continued hardship,” is an attitude that tempts us to double down on bad communication practices. The problem with this is that we become the focus of our message. Yes, we are trying our best to do a good deed and deliver potentially life-saving messages to our audience. However, before we ever spoke to a television camera or a town hall meeting, did we ever stop to question our intent? Was our crisis message something that you churned out on your own, received approval to distribute, and go about dropping vital tidbits of information to save the masses? Or did you take time to develop relationships with your stakeholders well ahead of time so you already have your finger on the pulse of the community? Is their pain your pain?

The costs of communication errors during a crisis are too great to fathom. There is no greater case study of communication failure than that of Hurricane Katrina, which decimated large parts of New Orleans in 2005. Had all levels of government been able to not only speak to each other, but to their communities with collective empathy, the loss of lives could have been substantially less. Not being able to understand where other people are coming from can make communication much more difficult. A lack of empathy in crisis messaging can also cause people to misinterpret what other people are trying to say, which can ultimately lead to miscommunication, conflict, and damaged relationships. Whether it be cultural stigmatization, self-destructive behaviors, or civil unrest, we can learn a lot from recent history of what doesn’t work when we make communication mistakes. This holds especially true when we don’t consider the importance of empathy in our crisis communication responses.

Because we absorb and act upon information differently during a disaster, the potential for miscommunication increases dramatically and may not only hamper disaster response efforts but erase them altogether. One only needs to look at the unrest from any school shooting to understand that communication is a key component to bridge gaps between communities, schools, and law enforcement so we build trust in our ability to protect our children.  Practicing empathy in a crisis messaging such as this will help build an emotional connection that demonstrates our ability to share the pain with our fellow neighbors. Again, we show that we understand our audience’s fears and misgivings because we share the same fears and misgivings. Once our audience knows that we have the same dog in the fight, their inclination will be to listen and act upon our recommendations because they know that we’ll be practicing our own advice.


7 Steps to Increase Empathy in Crisis Messaging

The best communicators exhibit a balance between empathy and authority. Warmth and strength should be front and center of how we communicate as leaders and is an appropriate tonal combination in both what we say and how we say it. Empathy in crisis messaging is even more critical during a disaster in which information is gold. Good spokespersons lead their audiences to a level of educated preparedness. Get it wrong, and your audience will quickly lose trust which only exacerbates panic and fear. 

But how can you get through the turmoil and craft your messages with empathy like a pro when calamity strikes? It means prioritizing people and their well-being, focusing on goodwill, and making decisions that are in the best interests of your community. It sounds fairly simple but it can be difficult to execute...especially in a crisis. Remember, spokespersons are not born…they are trained. 

To help in your transition from being a competent communicator to a great spokesperson, here are 7 tips to begin inserting empathy in your crisis messaging strategy amid the most challenging of situations:

EMPATHY IN CRISIS MESSAGING TIP #1: Acknowledge uncertainty

No one knows everything and people typically know when you’re full of crap when you pretend that you do. A secret that most leaders and public information specialists don’t know they have at their disposal is this: you don’t need to know everything. This is especially true in the initial stages of a disaster as first responders try to figure out what happened and interpret the consequences of the incident. As it relates to empathy, acknowledging uncertainty is most effective when the communicator shows their distress and acknowledges the audience’s distress. It’s okay to tell the audience you don’t know all of the details, but do promise to find out…then follow up.  

"Put yourself in your listener's shoes and think about what the kindest way to say what needs to be said. Take responsibility for your communication and be as interested in listening as you are in speaking."

EMPATHY IN CRISIS MESSAGING TIP #2: Be aware of body language and vocal tone

Remember, people are scared in the initial stages of a disaster. Active listening means giving more than an open ear. It requires both body language and verbal cues to let them know you care. Examples of nonverbal cues include nodding your head, smiling, and using a warm and relaxed tone. Good posture shows that you are actively engaged in their fear yet enables you to demonstrate confidence in your message and response efforts…even if you’re not

EMPATHY IN CRISIS MESSAGING TIP #3: Acknowledge people’s fears

Everyone has the right to feel fear. Even when their fear is unjustified, it does not respond well to being ignored. Your job is not to allay community panic, but to help manage it by giving people the information they need to put those fears into context. That means acknowledging fear in the community, keeping the fear in perspective, and displaying empathy in solidarity which can alleviate audience concerns. By taking your community’s fear into account, you are actively creating empathy in crisis messaging and bridging the gap between you and your audience.

EMPATHY IN CRISIS MESSAGING TIP #4: Understand your audience’s relation to the event

Different audiences will be looking for a specific message to meet their concerns. Prioritize the development of messages for each audience based on their involvement, as well as socio-cultural factors such as education levels, age, cultural norms, geographic location, and gender/sexuality to name a few. Remember, your goal is to reach your audience with a vital message. Using terms understood by senior citizens will typically go over the heads of your younger audiences, giving them the perception that you not only can’t emotionally connect with them, but you may also not want to in the first place. Right or wrong, perceptions count. If you want to demonstrate empathy in crisis messaging and build trust with your audience, then understanding your audience should be front and center of any effort to reach them. 

EMPATHY IN CRISIS MESSAGING TIP #5: Consider the most appropriate medium to distribute communication

How you speak to various demographics can drastically impact yow your message is heard. Some mediums of communication work better than others when it comes to delivering to audiences. Others may convey information, but not meaning. If your organization handles crisis communication via email, understand that it can be difficult to detect tone in writing. People and communities don’t always do well when they, left to interpret words, confuse messages that unnecessarily scare them. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t use print media in delivering a crisis message. It just may not be your first option. Allowing your audience to see your face, or at a minimum, hear your voice, will likely improve the warmth behind your message and encourage your listeners. Face-to-face interaction helps those during crisis to develop additional trust in their leadership and is a great opportunity to exhibit empathy.


Not all risks are created equal, but the perception of risk is vitally important in crisis communications, especially if it’s the first emergency of its type. PERCEPTION of Risk is directly related to the emergency itself. In other words, we perceive our risk differently to manmade, imposed, or catastrophic emergencies. Understanding the difference between the real risk and the perception of risk becomes a vital component to empathizing with our audience as they may be confused between the difference. Empathy counts here because in the fog of war, we need to steer through perceptions while recognizing they exist in the first place. If we can help our audience label misperception, then they are more likely to follow our lead through the crisis and correct misinformation in the midst of confusion.


To feel confident in acting upon your agency’s recommendations, your community has to trust you. The more we trust those who are commissioned to protect or inform us, the less afraid we become. The less we trust, the more that fear increases. As a communicator, your role in building trust means that you must communicate openly and often while you manage expectations through the crisis. Disasters are draped in confusion, and your audience will be looking to you for guidance. Again, put yourself in the shoes of your listeners. Why would you give your trust to a responding agency in a disaster? Would you be more apt to trust those you know empathize with you? I know I would.

Relate to Communicate

Communication is difficult on the sunniest of days, but can be downright confusing during a crisis. Connecting to our audience and getting them to act upon our recommendations isn’t only prudent, it could be lifesaving. Creating empathy in your crisis messaging, either through word or in person, is the most vital component to creating the emotional connection that builds trust and imparts leadership. Through empathy, you earn the permission and authority to guide your audience and establish your role as a leader throughout any disaster. Empathy bridges the gap between your role as a spokesperson to that of the leader who sides with your community, arming them with the self-confidence that they can care for themselves as calamity looms. That is never a bad thing…especially when disaster hits.

About the Author

Mark Linderman is the owner of Disaster Initiatives, an online company that provides communication leaders with the tools needed to address their communities and the media throughout a crisis, and teaches the communicator to approach crisis communication from the listener’s perspective. He is a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) and nineteen-year veteran of Public Health. He instructs Crisis & Risk Communication within the field of disaster preparedness for seven universities, including Indiana University’s Fairbanks School of Public Health. Mark is considered a Subject Matter Expert in the field of disaster-based communication and is a widely received public speaker and advocate for disaster preparedness. 

Mark Linderman,

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