Addressing emotion key to pandemic communication

— Siobhan Rennie 

A version of this article originally appeared on - 

As we continue to shift the way we do business and live our lives in response to COVID-19’s twists and turns, there remains a great deal of uncertainty. And frankly, one can feel pretty exhausting and emotional at times.

We’re all doing our best to keep swimming and stay positive. We don’t know how long restrictions will remain, or how far reaching the effects of the pandemic will be. And we’ve already been in this limbo for an extended period.

Nonetheless, there are a few things we can be sure of. That life will be different, the ‘new  normal’, for a fair while to come. And we know that throughout this time, while our communications may look different to usual, the fundamental principles have never been more important.

Despite the uncertainty, or perhaps because of it, it is important that organisations continue to engage in the right way, with the right people, at the right time.

WE has managed crisis and stakeholder communications for various businesses during this pandemic – from aged care providers to retail and lifestyle businesses – from the early planning stages to active response to virus transmission and its multiple effects. What’s clear is that careful, early preparation has been hugely beneficial for businesses who have  initiated critical incident planning, risk management processes, crisis communications strategies and robust media monitoring.

Enacting proactive and reactive communications, alongside continuous planning for the future, has been essential to maintaining business operations and reputation. Clear, calm and empathetic communication has created an environment that has meant these businesses are in a better position to manage the COVID situation effectively.

But we’ve also witnessed the opposite – where panic, reactive, short-term thinking has jeopardised operations and reputations, lead to negative media scrutiny, and jeopardised leaders best hopes.

The important thing to remember is that this is a very human experience​ - everyone is experiencing this pandemic personally and differently. In addition to rising expectations, your stakeholders  - whether they be staff, customers, clients, partners, media or the community – are experiencing a range of emotions. Understanding these, and factoring them into communication strategies, is vital to managing any given situation.

Whether you think a stakeholder’s response to a situation is reasonable or not, understanding what is driving it can inform how to engage.​ For example, the fear of the unknown may mean that someone acts in an extreme or irrational way to avoid the perceived threat.​

The way to address that fear to is to provide a sense of safety. By directly addressing the fear, you moderate the reaction, and create a more manageable environment.​ Clearly, safety has to be genuine, so needs to be supported with how and why you’re able to assure them.​ Providing more detailed information, where possible, will lead to positive responses, and could help you turn an threat into a positive reinforcement of your purpose and therefore your reputation.

It’s also worth considering the following:

Be timely and lead with purpose. Combat the general chaos abounding with clear communication. People want to be kept informed with information that is conveyed with purpose and empathy.​ Focus on messages that are timely and transparent, in a tone that is clear, unambiguous and empathetic​. Talk to them about:​

  • What you are doing to help them / their families​ / the community
  • How you are looking after your employees​
  • Provide reassurance and that you’re listening and responding ​


Lead from the front. People want to be included and to see action. They are looking for leadership and direction from those with authority.​

  • In addition to managing the day-to-day, lead with vision and show people what they can look forward to at the end of tunnel. Communicate with respect, and in a relatable way.
  • ​Look at new ways to create value for and connect with your people, clients and stakeholders, and anticipate changes to your workforce and service requirements.
  • Consider the best medium and how to engage your community right now, bearing in mind they are of all ages and have preferred communication channels. ​


Support a positive risk culture. The risk of critical issues and negative headlines will always exist, particularly in certain sectors. However, you can address this with good planning.

  • How can you support a positive risk culture, where risk is expected, identified early, assessed and acted on?​
  • Put in place risk management, critical incident and crisis communications planning.
  • Rehearse your response to crisis and issues by running live mock crisis scenario training or similar.

In our experience, almost always the escalation of an issue to full-blown crisis could have been avoided or managed better through planned communication. Clear, transparent, authentic communications that help allay people’s fears or concerns have never been more important or necessary.

Siobhan Rennie is Head of Corporate at WE Communications Australia