“If you want to stay home, stay home. If you want to go out, you can go out,” he continued. “I’m not in the older population. If I was to get it now, I’ve got a 90 percent chance of getting cured. Also, I don’t know anybody who’s got it.”
He was right: wearing a mask in public is optional in Georgia. Yet his attitude, as displayed in a recent Washington Post article on the reopening of businesses during the pandemic, is deeply troubling. It reveals a profound lack of empathy.
One of the fundamental tenets of public relations is empathy—the ability to understand, share and genuinely reflect the feelings and concerns of others. People expect empathy from their government leaders, their employers and the companies they do business with. They want to know you care about them, especially during a crisis.
During my corporate career, I served as a news media spokesperson for 26 site closing and major workforce reductions. Yes, I kept track; I even carried the list on my cellphone. To this day it resides in a file.
Because I felt the heartache of the employees and their communities in every single one of those closings, and I never wanted to forget that. The list reminded me that every announcement, and every word I said, impacted real people and their families. Empathy drove me to keep that list and think about those people.
Yes, I spoke on behalf of the company, but I also spoke to and for the people who were affected—at times going to extraordinary, and risky, lengths to share that perspective, to offer caring and supportive words (and actions whenever possible) that might help them deal with the new reality.
Most businesses understand the need for empathy, and I’m pleased that the ones I work with today embrace it. Likewise, many of my clients are nonprofits, for whom empathy fuels their raison d’etre.
But empathy appears scarce elsewhere. Government leaders seem more interested in scoring political points, or stirring their base, than they are in empathy. Many corporations let their empathy be dimmed by the competing focus on benefitting shareholders. And the public’s growing disdain—even outright animosity—of anything that doesn’t serve their individual wants is especially disturbing.
Who would have thought that the simple act of wearing a mask to protect others from a deadly disease would be cast as a villainous effort to destroy democracy? Who would have thought a protest against stay-at-home orders could involve armed terrorists—there’s no other way to describe them—bent on intimidating anyone who disagreed? Who would have thought the preventable deaths of more than 90,000 Americans would be dismissed as “not my problem,” or labeled a hoax, or hand-waved away as less-deadly than other fatalities?
Yet here we are.
The New York Times made a bold move to remind Americans about empathy. On May 24, the entire front page was a list of 1,000 people who have died of COVID-19—not just their names, but their ages, their hometowns and what they did in their lives. On one powerful page, NYT challenged us to reconnect with empathy once again.
More than ever, public relations and communication professionals must be the champions of empathy. As we speak for our clients, we must also speak for their constituents. That’s the heart of effective communication—not an act done to someone else, but a dialogue between all parties. We need to understand and feel what others feel.
In PR, we serve as a vital bridge between the organizations we represent and the public with whom we communicate. The girders of that bridge are built on empathy. We must preserve them at all cost—because if they’re removed, and the bridge collapses, leaving a chasm that can never be breached.