In a crisis, use the language of empathy, not legalese

Here are two examples from recent headlines around banks processing federal stimulus payments that show the disparity between human connection and corporate blather.


If your corporate policy is inflexible, cushion it with compassion.

In March, the federal government announced unprecedented news: It would give every American a stimulus payment of up to $1,200. Yet the check came with a catch. If you opted to have the money deposited into your bank account and your account is overdrawn, then your bank might keep part, or even all, of the payment to make up for your negative balance.

Leave aside for the moment whether this action is right or wrong. Instead, consider the diametrically different statements from two banks:

1. “Currently, a stimulus payment could be reduced when we execute legal garnishment or lien requirements. A reduction can also occur in circumstances when the stimulus payment is deposited into an account with a negative balance.”

2. “We are temporarily crediting the overdrawn amount for customers, giving them full access to their stimulus payment. We hope this gives them a chance to catch their breath.”

Now, I know what you’re thinking: The second statement is better because the bank’s policy is better; it’s easy to be liked when you’re being charitable. What’s more, with respect to the first statement, even the best PR can’t neutralize bad policy; you can only put so much lipstick on a pig.

This is all true. And yet, the first statement is a textbook example of what not to do. Indeed, it’s always telling when passive voice is used and legalese triumphs over plain language: You’re trying to hide something.

Indeed, evasion is what cowards and amateurs and lawyers do. By contrast, PR pros know that obfuscation only pours gasoline on a fire. They know that complexity usually entails euphemism—that people crave clarity.

How do these notions relate to the banks? If your policy is punitive, it’s best not to call attention to it. But you also don’t have to cloak your response with locutions like “could,” “legal,” and “reduction.”

Instead, as those who’ve undergone media training know, the best answer is often to reframe the question. And if you don’t have a good answer, the least you can do is offer a sense of compassion for those in hardship. In a word: You can express empathy. As Maya Angelou famously observed, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

With that in mind, here’s an alternative statement that Bank No. 1 might have issued:

“We’re doing our best to work with and accommodate each customer during this terrible time.”

Whereas the original statement tried to avoid accountability, the revision uses both active voice and the first person. Whereas the original was sterile, the revision exudes sentiment

Notice, too, what the revision is missing: no stilted sentences, no guarded conditionals, and frankly, no direct response.

When your position is heartless, the best strategy isn’t to argue that hearts are overrated. It’s to pump a little blood into your vessels.

Jonathan Rick teaches people how to speak in soundbites.



One Response to “In a crisis, use the language of empathy, not legalese”

    Maddie says:

    I think the issue here is that with the revision, there is also very little information. It might be better to look at options of explaining the policy in a straightforward way “Funds will be applied to your debt with the overdrawn account” etc and then following up that customers can reach out if they need additional assistance etc. because they understand each circumstance is different, and so on… Just a thought – while the new example seems to be more caring, it’s also obfuscation in a more outright way by not actually sharing the policy at all and leaving people surprised when actions take place.

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