Michael McGrath

How Our Collective Catharsis Affects Communications During Times of Crisis

By: Michael McGrath | May 6, 2020 | 
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How Our Collective Catharsis Affects Communications During Times of CrisisIn that faraway fairyland of February, my daughter was burning the candle at both ends.

With an overextended schedule of school, sports, clubs, homework, friends, and babysitting gigs, she was too often getting just five hours of sleep a night.  We worried.

These days, she’s getting a solid 12.

(That’s barely an overstatement.)

The whiplash of emotions we’re feeling during these times of crisis is disorientating.

We may be socially distancing from each other, but a diverse cast of sensations are dancing next to each other in the mosh pit of our brains.

In a given day, calm frolics with panic.

Self-pity cozies up to gratitude.

I always thought they hated each other, but despair and optimism should really get a room.

All the Emotions at Once During Times of Crisis

One moment, I’m certain we’re all doomed. The next, I’m certain this is a necessary precursor to a great societal awakening. On a good day, I stay away from the news, turn on music and focus on what I can control.

But I’ll confess there are too many days when I’m hyper-clicking through the news, obsessing about the stock market, pulling my hair out about this politician or that one.

All a futile attempt to develop some sort of consensus in my own head about what I think about all of this. This is unprecedented for me. I have an opinion about EVERYTHING.

It All Becomes Challenging During Times of Crisis

I make my living writing and developing messages for clients.

Even this—something so easy—has become difficult; not because there are no words, but because we’re not sure what we want to say. Our first instinct is to go for inspiration and optimism.

Let’s bolster the troops like a coach’s locker room speech at halftime.  There’s a small problem though. This thing doesn’t seem to be letting up anytime soon.

This Is Different

Past cases of collective catharsis have almost always followed a single gut punch.

9/11 unleashed wave of patriotism and gratitude for first responders.

Who can forget the bolstering sentiment of “Boston Strong” after the marathon bombing?

These times of crisis, while horrific on the day, provided a relatively calm space to lick our wounds and pick our emotional selves back up again.

But this pandemic has no realistic end in sight, either epidemiologically or economically.

On some level, we know the promise of normality is illusory for a while. After many weeks of lockdown and social distancing, the thematic “We’re All in This Together” is starting to feel tired and hackneyed. Its effect diminishing by the day.

Effective and Authentic Communications

If we believe that effective communication is authentic communication, we need to go beyond the pom-poms.

The ministers at the “Church of Positive Thinking” may disagree with me here, but most psychologists tell us that all feelings—even negative ones—must be acknowledged or the listener loses faith in the person or thing communicating to them.

That said, we don’t want to be tiresomely negative either. The thousands of memes circulating around about how every day in quarantine is like every other is proving its own point about the dreariness of repetitiveness during times of crisis.

Never Lost

Striking this balance is no easy trick but the 90-second Facebook ad “never lost” does it better than any other I’ve seen.

This video is so effective because it doesn’t sugarcoat the crisis, yet still uplifts us. The gorgeous spoken word poetry by Kate Tempest breaks your heart because it acknowledges, with stark honesty, the inner conflict we’re all feeling.

The first 45 seconds is devastatingly bleak.

We see empty streets, a woman struggling to breathe, and another crying in her car.

But then, at exactly the halfway mark, the piece turns to hope, strength and survival.

We see happy and relatable faces enduring. It avoids cheeky promises of better days to come. Rather it bolsters us using only the window of our present condition.  It is not about happy endings but about the happiness we all experience even in this difficulty.

What to Do During These Times of Crisis

Yes, it’s appropriate to be skeptical and roll our eyes when a mega-brand like Facebook attempts to tug at our heartstrings.

But “Never Lost” is as a good guide as any for crafting messages because it’s honest. It leans optimistic but is not overwrought. It brings a tear but without the saccharine of sentimentality.

Millions of words have been written with “tips for coronavirus communications”.

Most of it is mind-crushingly obvious.

Yes, please speak with clarity and honesty.

Yes, please brush up on your media training and give regular updates to employees.  And please, (please!) have a “plan” and a coordinated “team.”.

All good ideas!

But beyond the obvious and practical, communications professionals should work with leaders to frame this crisis in a way that is authentic.

Acknowledge the Dark Side

An executive is not weak if he or she acknowledges concern, frustration, or lack of answers.

It just makes them human.

During these times of crisis, leaders need to let their actual personalities come out.

To build trust, communications can’t be antiseptic, as if written in a corporate communications shop.

Of course, it usually is, but the communications should be closely aligned with the executive’s style, attitudes and beliefs.

Convey Strength 

While acknowledging the dark side is important, it’s obviously not helpful to anyone to whine or engage in self-pitying.

There is no monopoly on sad stories in this crisis and we can always find some person or organization that is worse off. 

Steely determination is what sets most leaders apart in times of crisis.

Emphasize the Larger Purpose

Remember, airline companies do not fly planes; they bring people together.

Insurance companies do not write policies; they provide peace of mind.

Energy utilities do not deliver gas and electricity, they make hot showers and cold beers possible.

During times of crisis, it’s important to focus on your end-value.

Facebook’s 90-second video was not about product features, it was about people able to see the faces of loved ones.

In difficult moments like this, we must embrace the chaos with realism about the present and a determined optimism for the future.

Above all, we must be brave.

We must have the courage to admit our vulnerabilities, to speak our mind without calculation, and become more skilled at measuring what’s really important.

And we must catch up on our sleep.

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

About Michael McGrath


Michael McGrath is a communications consultant with more than 25 years helping organizations achieve superior performance by designing and executing communication strategies that educate, motivate and inspire their key stakeholders.