Creating human connections through a crisis

Genuine Humans
Genuine Humans
Creating human connections through a crisis

Our Social Navigation whitepaper has valuable insights and advice for navigating through this crisis. 


The word ‘unprecedented’ has been used so many times during this crisis, but these really are unusual times.

To help organisations navigate their communications on and off social media during the crisis, The Social Element ran a webinar on 25th March, to find out what businesses and social media organisations are learning and experiencing.

Joining the webinar as panellists were:

  • Director of Brand & Customer Experience at Eurostar, Amber Kirby
  • Planning Director for Northern Europe at Facebook, Ian Edwards
  • PR and crisis expert, Co-Founder of Polpeo, and the author of Communicate in a Crisis, Kate Hartley
  • CEO of The Social Element and Co-Founder of Polpeo, Tamara Littleton

It was hosted by Chief People Officer at The Social Element, Wendy Christie. 

The panel discussed several topics during the webinar and answered questions from attendees. 

What’s been the most significant lesson from this crisis in the past two weeks?

Amber talked about her team’s daily calls around the ongoing crisis. The crisis, and so Eurostar’s response to it, is changing on an almost hourly basis. It’s a much more intense crisis than Amber has experienced at the business during the year in her role.

Being one of the main ways that the UK connects to Europe, Eurostar felt the ripples of the crisis starting to hit Europe before many UK businesses did. It’s very tough for the travel industry at the moment, and a lot of travel companies are in real trouble due to the tight margins they operate under.

However, the crisis has helped Amber’s team understand the range of experiences in the Eurostar family, and demonstrated the commitment of all of their employees – especially those on the frontline who are keeping people moving. They all feel a duty to keep the vital transport link open.

Ian said that he’d never known a period of disruption like that which we’re experiencing now. While he felt an initial shock at how fast things were changing, he quickly realised the importance of the support of those around you. Speaking to clients daily and helping them strategise their way through the crisis has also formed an important part of the past fortnight. 

But, he said, it’s also crucial to take a breath. Many people are working at home with their children off school, and Ian, like many other parents, has realised the importance of structuring his, and his children’s days so that everyone can work effectively.

While Kate has worked from home for years, she’s still used to working in the hub office most of the time. The past two weeks have shown Kate how important it is to keep communicating with her team. Video calls help replicate face-to-face time, and virtual drinks give the team a chance to unwind and chat.

Kate has found a renewed sense of community in her area, with people offering their help through social media.

Tamara emphasised the importance of leaders looking after their teams before anyone else, and ensuring that they are safe and doing okay. Tamara frequently works from home and the agency has been using a remote model for years but she acknowledged this is completely different for everyone and especially those with children and she gave a shout out to Joe Wicks for being the friend that everyone needs right now.

How are clients doing and what are they asking for help with?

For Ian, at Facebook, the biggest challenge has been getting the right information to the right people. It’s been about supporting the work of health organisations and governments. Facebook has given the World Health Organisation unlimited ad credits, and opened a COVID-19 information centre, to help inform people.

He mentioned that Facebook has a $100m fund that small businesses can apply for – covering 30 countries – which will hopefully support 30,000 firms. Many businesses are pivoting to ecommerce and dealing with a huge surge of demand for customer service. Facebook is looking at how it can use AI-powered chatbots through Messenger to support businesses. Around 90% of call centre volume is generated by customers’ top 10 questions, so clear information is imperative if brands want to reduce the impact on their call centres and social media teams.

Tamara found that clients have needed The Social Element team to support them on adapting content to reflect the right tone and message on social media and that they have needed insights and crisis communications support. She’s also been providing a lot of ad-hoc support to businesses on virtual working.

Eventually, brands will need to start thinking more traditional campaign-led marketing and advertising again; this crisis could last for months. Many people will also want to see brands being present – brands are part of normal life, and sometimes help people to define their identity. When and how these campaigns will start up again is a matter for consideration.

Amber talked about how COVID-19 has been a great leveller. It’s taken people back to thinking about what it means to be human. Right now, marketers should listen to their instinct about the right things to post, and when to post them. 

Everyone’s hunkering down and protecting what they love and cherish – for brands, this is their values. Eurostar values – caring, connecting and ambition – are helping the brand respond to the crisis and keeping the “burning light of the future” alive. 

Tamara and Kate agreed. One day, this crisis will be over, and you should be able to look back with pride at your brand’s response.

How should brands be communicating through this crisis?

Kate emphasised that the most important thing was to put yourself in the shoes of people most directly affected by the crisis. It’s not about what your brand needs to say, but what people want to hear from it. People are focused on the health and safety of themselves and their families, not on brand profit (unless it’s their employer).

It can be hard for brands to show empathy, but Kate recommends using the structure laid out by Professor Theresa Wiseman (who is a clinical professor of applied health research, specialising in Cancer Care, at the University of Southampton and the Royal Marsden hospital), in her work on empathy in nursing

1) see the world as other people do 

2) understand their feelings and why they feel that way 

3) be non-judgemental  

4) communicate that understanding.

The unique thing about this crisis is that it’s something we’re all going through.

No-one is to blame for it, and brands have limited power to fix things. They can, however, look after their teams and their customers. 

What advice do you have for companies struggling to adapt to virtual working?

Tamara’s a self-confessed eternal optimist. She believes that this crisis is driving a positive and more human change in communications. We used to be so obsessed with providing a perfect environment for video calls when we were working from home; now we see and embrace the chaos of what it means to be human. We’re meeting co-worker’s families, housemates – and pets! – and generally forming deeper human connections with our teams.

Tamara pointed out that communicating to all team members is key. If someone can’t join video calls, ensure that they still feel part of the team by using a range of communication methods. Remember that even people who often work from home may feel isolated right now due to lockdowns in their country. Use calls to share aspects of your daily lives, and to discover ways to keep people motivated – this is a crisis that could stretch on for months.

The Social Element’s Chief People Officer, Wendy Christie, pointed out that people are working under much more pressure right now and that they’ll all be coping with different experiences. Businesses need to find ways to support these people. (For example, by understanding that people may not be as productive as usual.)

The panel also discussed how they were coping with the crisis. What is clear is that everyone is struggling. As leaders, it’s important to find ways to support yourself so that you can be there for your team. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and share your hopes and fears with them. 

It’s a terrible situation that no one could have predicted, but by working together and supporting each other, teams can help each other, and their businesses, come out on the other side.

You can listen to the full webinar right here.

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