I was half-heartedly watching a music award show while multi-tasking when I heard country music star and coronavirus fighter Dolly Parton dedicate the show to the people of Ukraine. Matthew Ramsey of Old Dominion told the audience it felt “strange” to celebrate winning an award while a war rages in Ukraine. “There are people fighting for their lives.”

Strange days, indeed.

From COVID-19 and urban unrest to Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine, we’ve become accustomed to living and working under a miasma of death and destruction over the past three years. Whether it’s celebrating with our families, celebrating in front of a live audience at an award show, or trying to communicate a policy, political or brand message as a PR pro, how do we muddle through?

We’ve served clients with all manner of difficult issues amidst and sometimes due to the global challenges we’re living through. It occurs to me that Dolly Parton may be showing us PR pros the way to do our jobs better.

Be real. Authenticity is an oft-used buzzword, but Dolly’s dedication addresses the topic with empathy with perfect pitch.

Be engaged. How can we play a role–big or small–in addressing a global crisis? While we were stuck at home, many dedicated time every evening to publicly thank the essential workers who put their lives on the line for us. Wrigley Field turned into the largest food bank in the city and the United Center became a mass vaccination center. Dolly, of course, donated $1 million to vaccine research.

Be empathic. In the past three years, empathy, at times, seemed as if it were in short supply. Take a breath and see if you can understand opposing views or at least see another human struggling. Our instinct is to be combative, but maybe that’s not the answer.

Be centered. Nothing diffuses tension and conflict like a little sense of humor. Dolly joked about dating Daniel Boone. The late Herb Kelleher, the former CEO of Southwest Airlines, was famously self-deprecating and willing to embarrass himself on a regular basis to win over passengers or negotiate new airport gates.

I’ve violated most of these lessons myself, but to be willing to learn might be the final point. We can all do better, I’m going to start that now.



This article was written by Dennis Culloton. Dennis is the president and CEO of Culloton + Bauer Luce and one of the most experienced crisis communications and media advisers in the marketplace today.