Communicating with a Fear-driven Audience

Last week, I sat in my barber’s chair as we discussed why he still wears the ubiquitous mask that has been a part of our lives for more than a year. For background, we are both fully vaccinated. He wears it because he doesn’t trust that everyone who enters the store will be COVID-free.

My barber is a classic case study for crisis communications. His perception exemplifies the fear we all struggle with and the trust gap that holds strong, even when we have access to the best science available. As communicators, it’s our job to build trust with our audiences, so we can cut through the fear to reach them when it matters most.

How does fear impact our thinking?

Dr. Relly Nadler explained the fear effect in Psychology Today. “When there is any fear or anxiety, the amygdala region of the brain, your emotional center, jumps to attention and takes resources away from the executive decision making of the prefrontal cortex. In a chain reaction, the light goes out on the prefrontal cortex, and your IQ drains like a cold beer going down on a hot afternoon….”

Fear does funny things to even the most intelligent person. So, what’s the first step in communicating with a fearful group, or any group for that matter? Building trust.

How Can I Build Trust with a Concerned Audience?

To build trust with a concerned audience, communicators must choose language and content that displays empathy while directing them gently toward new ways of thinking. 

This is precisely the struggle the Centers for Disease Control, and many highly technical organizations, grapple with during crises. Rather than first building trust using empathy-driven content and language, they deliver the raw data and facts. But when that data evolves, requiring new behaviors, they have difficulty guiding those fearful, untrusting individuals to new ways of thinking and operating.

It begs the question, so what am I supposed to do? I have a few quick tips listed below.

Three Tips for Communicating in a Crisis

  1. Deliver fewer facts and more care

    Quoting Teddy Roosevelt, “No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” Crisis communications practitioners regularly back up this premise, and it’s been a cornerstone of patient care during the pandemic. Authentic empathy and care for others is the gateway to a relationship with your audiences that will enable you to share your persuasive information later.  

  2. Prepare for a marathon, not a sprint.

    I am not a runner, but I have many friends who enjoy long-distance racing. To properly prepare for longer distances, they establish a plan and then put in the miles to prepare their bodies for the race. Crises are often the same. Even if you’ve planned, it can take some time to build trust with skeptical audiences. 

    As your actions match your empathetic language, you will win back stakeholders and regain the influence lost during a crisis. The time frame for this “transition to trust” entirely depends on the extent of the crisis and your past track record of performance. Going into a crisis with the long view, will ensure you are in the right mindset from the start. 

  3. Gain Outside Perspective

    Remember the quote about people under stress and their IQs dropping like a cold beer during a heatwave? That also applies to those of us on the inside responding to the crisis. I suggest getting some external help to offer additional perspective and keep you grounded as you communicate. This can be a crisis firm, independent consultant or even just another department in your business. Your personal networks of like-industry professionals from other companies can be a great resource here as well. 
The CDC first reported confirmed cases of COVID-19 more than a year and a half ago. One could argue that we as a nation and individuals have been in crisis mode ever since. This makes it additionally essential to think critically about our communications style as we seek to influence audiences primed to distrust.
Andy Hallmark
CEO, Clear Strategy Partners
Working with a great group of communications professionals to translate challenging topics for our clients’ audiences. We get to figure out this puzzle every day and it is rewarding to be part of a firm that cares about finding communications solutions that are honest and compelling.