The rising importance of empathy and emotion in corporate communications during COVID-19 

by Ruth Rowan

11 May 2020

A dad on a video call with his kids around him as he works from home

Over the last decade, we’ve seen an increasing amount of companies focusing on defining purpose (why we’re here) and building brands and differentiation linked to that. At the same time it’s been encouraging to see an increasing focus on broader societal impact as well as traditional financial performance. It took a global pandemic to push this gradual ethical shift into a tsunami-sized movement. Why? Because underneath the corporate badges and job titles, at the end of the day, as employees, managers and leaders we are all human.

Navigating COVID-19, I’ve reconnected with my academic studies in Human Sciences. I see much of this science playing out in the corporate world before us. What makes us human is the ability to communicate in multiple ways: speech, reading and writing, allowing us to connect and feel empathy. Our abstract thoughts enable us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. What would it be like to be a frontline healthcare worker? What if a loved one was unwell, isolated or suffering, and not able to breathe? These thoughts affect us and drive a change in our behaviour.

Leaders in businesses around the world are thinking beyond the bottom line, with a renewed and heartfelt emphasis on their people, customers, suppliers and the wider community. We’re in the middle of culturally defining times where the role of humanity in how we live our lives and the way we work is more important than ever. Doing the right thing, in the right way has never felt more important than it does right now.

This purpose-led corporate movement is powered by the stories of the superhuman effort and risk we’ve witnessed from frontline workers, but also our innate needs and desires for connection. We see protocols and guidelines relax a little, as we find new ways to meet our inherent needs for deeper relationships.

There are 4 main reflections taken from my studies that I’m bringing into my corporate role today:

A woman working from her home desk

Organizations must adjust tone and messaging according to the enormity of this crisis

  • Now, more than ever, we need to connect with our humanity

    The demand for information is great. We’re trained throughout our careers to base decisions on information, facts and data. To present information that guides decision making and govern through facts. However, as humans, we look to connect with stories which ignite an emotive connection. Leaders are pivoting towards more content focusing on real people doing amazing things that ultimately connect with us. More so than ever, leaders need to build trust among their teams. This comes from authenticity and, ultimately, humanity. By being honest, thoughtful and considered. We need to speak openly; saying what we know and don’t know, what is working and what isn’t, what we are and aren’t ready for, and what we’re doing to help. Now, more than ever, it’s important we acknowledge we’re all on the same side – that’s why the internet is ablaze with the phrase ‘All in it together’.

  • The importance of being together

    The rise of video platforms such as Zoom and Houseparty, coupled with the proliferation of content across WhatsApp, illustrates our inherent need as humans to be social and interact, even if it’s just in the digital space for now.

    Individual emotional pressures haven’t stopped us from taking time to appreciate each other more and tune in to a more caring side. We're adapting by doing simple things like turning on video when chatting to colleagues or clients, and opting to send a video message instead of typing an email. I see team members helping others right across our business and leaning in to solve problems with clients and partners together in a whole new way.

    Science tells us that meaningful social connections are one of the behaviours proven to increase our mood and happiness. A 5-minute video call to a colleague or family member will help lift spirits more than 20 minutes in a group zoom session.

    It’s essential to accept the new ways of working and create togetherness even when we are apart. Our employees are sharing workspaces with their children, housemates, partners and pets. The NTT Ltd. #PartOfTheTeam social media campaign creates covid-camaraderie by illustrating the many similarities in our remote working environments.

A collage of people smiling for empathy during COVID-19

Talking about family as part of the team highlights common ground and acceptance of our new reality

  • Our inherent ability to adapt

    Probably the most important lesson of the last three months is that a plan is only suitable for the period it was written in, rather than when it was written for. We’ve ripped up launch plans, communication guidelines, messaging documents and more, starting over in many areas from scratch.

    Beyond pivoting our marketing and execution, applying agility, flexibility and resilience to the way we work have never been more critical. Web designers are helping with social media; event planners are lending a hand in communications, and across the business, we’re coming together to plan and execute our Plan B.

    One of the things that makes us unique as humans is our ability to adapt to changes in the environment, to develop new skills and learn new lessons. That’s how we evolved from the early hominid species, learnt to make shelter, make fire to cook food which enabled us to digest more food and as a result our brains to grow to solve many more challenges. Right now, we need to lean-in to the need to change, flex and adapt.

  • Being positive about the future

    At our very core, humans are naturally optimistic animals. We have the most advanced brains of any species which gives us an innate ability to plan, predict and positively shape the future. Adages gently spoken around the world right now, this too shall pass, and we’ll meet again, speak to our human optimism.

    Let’s use this as an opportunity to look at how we can accelerate some of the changes we want to see in our personal and professional lives. We can lay the foundation now, set new behavioural standards, so they become engrained. So often, the ability to make change happen is hindered by not being able to disrupt the status quo. During a time when things aren't normal, it’s often a great time to accelerate the changes we want to see.

Ruth Rowan is the Global CMO of NTT Ltd. She studied Human Sciences at Oxford University.

Keep your eyes on our website for COVID-19 related resources and how we can help.

Ruth Rowan

Ruth Rowan

Chief Marketing Officer, NTT Ltd.