Expressing empathy in crisis statements: Listen to the victims

crop woman tapping shoulder of frustrated female friend

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims tonight…”

How many times have you heard this phrase opening a press conference from a top exec, County Sheriff or elected official?

It’s been the go-to phrase to express our empathy for the victims of a crisis for quite a while. It’s also turned into the cheap way out: Trite, meaningless, and anything but empathetic. It comes across as cold instead of compassionate.

I recognized this, but didn’t have a ready solution, until mid-2019, when FEMA instructors Phil Politano(1) and Thomas Olshanski(2) came to Portland for the second time in four years to teach their advanced 5-day simulation/training course in crisis communications response(3). They warn it’s quite simple, but it’s not easy. Because it might cost you a small piece of your soul. 

Sympathy is sharing; empathy is understanding

What is empathy? And how does it differ from sympathy? Simply put, sympathy is sharing; empathy is understanding.

To show true empathy, you have to experience a bit of the victims’ pain.

As Hayley Hawthorne, Ph.D. and Nicole Lowenbraun write for presentation development company Duarte(4), “The best communicators exhibit a balance of empathy and authority…Warmth and strength.”

As nationally recognized crisis guru Jim Lukaszewski , ABC, Fellow IABC, APR, Fellow PRSA puts it, the crisis isn’t about you; it’s about the victims.

Your organization may or may not have played a role in causing the crisis, but if you’re called upon to join response efforts and speak at a press conference then your organization definitely has a role to play in helping end the crisis. You must respect the dignity of victims without patronizing them, and without claiming to be a victim yourself. You don’t share their pain; you understand it and want to help them stop being victims as soon as possible.

How do you do that? Listen to the victims.

Talk to victims before holding that press conference or drafting that quote. As leadership consultant and executive coach Joe Baker wrote(5), you may feel threatened. It will humble you. And it will affect you emotionally—as I said, it may take a small piece of your soul.

Showing true empathy is simply showing humble compassion for our fellow human beings.

After you’ve listened to the victims—after you’ve experienced a bit of their pain—you will be able to show true empathy in what you say.

And more importantly to ending the crisis and helping those victims, in what you do.


(1) Phil Politano died in 2019, just a few months after teaching that advanced course in Portland. He designed and taught the class since 2007, training tens of thousands of communicators to save lives and protect property by sharing information clearly, quickly, ethically and transparently. His death was a tremendous loss to all of us. The many communicators he taught will help protect us for many years to come.

(2) Many of us in Oregon remember Tom Olshanski, Director of External Affairs for the United States Fire Association for the past 19 years, from his time in the Eugene City Manager’s office in 2001 and 2002 as the Director of Corporate Communications and Senior Advisor to the City Manager, the Mayor and the City Council.

(3) “E/L0388 Advanced public information officer,” FEMA Emergency Management Institute, https://training.fema.gov/programs/pio/e388.aspx. In my opinion, every spokesperson who must respond to a crisis in partnership with any level of government should take it.

 (4) “10 ways to communicate with empathy and authority in times of crisis,” Hayley Hawthorne Ph.D. and Nicole Lowenbraun, Duarte, https://www.duarte.com/presentation-skills-resources/important-communicate-empathy-authority-times-crisis/
(5)“A call for empathy: key to effective communication and relationships,” Joe Baker, People Results, https://www.people-results.com/call-empathy-key-effective-communication-relationships/

About the Author
About the Author

Dave Thompson, APR has been in the communications business for more than 42 years, about half as a broadcast journalist and the rest in public relations. Most of that time he faced one crisis after another. He’s been active in PRSA-Portland Metro Chapter, the Oregon Capital Chapter and the statewide combined PRSA Oregon Chapter for more than 15 years. Among many volunteer roles, he’s delivered more than a dozen professional development presentations and workshops to PRSA, IABC and IAP2 audiences, locally and nationally; he’s been an APR coach for the past 12 years; and he served as Portland Metro chapter president in 2010 and 2011. The Portland Metro chapter awarded Dave the William W. Marsh Lifetime Achievement award in 2015 and the Oregon chapter awarded him the Olga M. Haley Mentorship award in 2020.

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