Achieving empathetic engagement: how emphatic communications and engagement play an integral role in effective emergency management

Matt McNally

Matt McNally

The current opportunity

The world we live in is changing rapidly. We are regularly reminded by increasing global temperatures and changing weather patterns. As Australians, we only need to look back to the 2019/20 summer period where bushfires wreaked havoc across the east coast, destroying an unthinkable amount of homes, farmland, bushland, national forest, with millions of wildlife lost.

It is a sad reality, but in the moving environment of emergency management, we are going to continue to be faced with these extreme events that fall out of our control. However, we often see mixed messages, poor management processes and affected community members being left out and becoming disengaged.

Empathetic Engagement in Action

In early 2020, I was lucky enough to start working on the NSW Government’s Bushfire Clean-Up Program. Going into this project, I was unaware of what was ahead for me, the challenges I would face, and the learnings I would take away from this experience.

My time on the project started in Sydney, where we started planning our approach and created our initial communication materials. I was soon on the ground in areas around Grafton, in northern NSW, to form an understanding of the work ahead, meet with affected community members and encourage affected residents to opt-in to the Program.

Over the next nine months I worked in affected communities from the Queensland border down to the Queanbeyan-Pelarang area. My work during this time was mainly focused on community and stakeholder engagement, on the ground community relations, issues management and reporting.

From my experience, and the experiences of those engaged during the project, I learnt practical steps on how to deliver effective and emphatic communications and engagement during emergency management.

Practical steps to deliver communications and engagement services during emergency management

Show empathy!

The Cambridge Dictionary defines empathy as “the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation”. From my experience, it is clear being empathetic towards every community member you deal with is a key factor in building a sense of trust and comfort for those people at the peak of trauma.

When meeting with different community members, as the face representing the Clean-Up Program, it was front of mind to treat everyone the same and work to understand other people’s emotions and how they are feeling post the event.

Clear communication

Often in the case of emergency situations like bushfire recovery, everyone wants to help those in need. This is when communication and roles and responsibilities become blurred, and trust with those in need starts to fracture.

Having clear messaging from the start of engagement sets the tone for the challenge ahead, it breaks through the barriers and sets a clear direction forward for recovery. Clear communication leads to the next principle – be able to deliver on what you are saying.

Be able to deliver on what you are saying

When working with people in times of distress it is important to be able to deliver on what you are saying. In my case, timeframes around when community members were going to have their properties cleaned up was key.

Being transparent and honest with timeframes gives the community members a timeline to prepare themselves for the works to take place. When providing timeframes, it is important to explain why some may be longer than expected, e.g., explaining that due to a damaged bridge accessing the property the trucks and machinery needed to complete the work would not be able to cross due to weight limits. Clearly explaining these impacts and being able to deliver on the works once the bridge (or other delay) has been fixed is important.

Understanding that everyone reacts differently in times of hardship

Having the awareness to understand that each person reacts differently in times of hardship was a considerable learning for me. Going into any conversation being prepared for someone to share detailed stories of survival, shed a tear, and in some cases joke about the situation was a daily occurrence.

It is important to always keep front of mind that everyone reacts differently in times of hardship, and that is okay. Some people process moments and situations at a different pass, and this is okay, and needs to be respected.

Understanding the importance of silence in conversations

My most significant learning from my time working on the NSW bushfire Clean-Up Program was that silence in conversations is not always bad. There were regular times when I would meet a community member and talk them through the process of documenting the damage, the timelines between the initial inspection and works taking place, where the community member was not entertained in having a conversation.

In these cases, nine times out of ten after you have stood next to each other for an extended period and feel it is time to leave, the community member would share a story with you. Sometimes, as humans we need to feel comfortable with who we share stories with, and it is a beautiful moment when you get the chance to listen to a story following the silence.

Why it is the only way forward

With the harsh reality that we will continue to be faced by extreme weather events, we need to ensure we are prepared to provide the best support for those affected.

Following these simple practical tips will go a long way in building trust and guarantee emphatic communications and engagement play an integral role in effective emergency management.

Living in Australia, we need to be thankful that we have different tiers of government that provide financial assistance to deliver these services. We need to ensure that as professionals, we utilise this investment and provide the services that people need in quick, efficient, and most importantly, an empathetic way.

At Struber, we recognise the importance of empathic communications and engagement for emergency management. We can help you connect with your communities and stakeholders. To find out more connect with us at

Achieving empathetic engagement: how emphatic communications and engagement play an integral role in effective emergency management
Matt McNally
October 20, 2021
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