Walk a Mile in Their Shoes…The Importance of Empathy in Public Relations

It’s easy to think of cool ways to reach your peers, to identify strategies and tactics for and audiences made up of people who are like you. For most students, that means the temptation to focus on students and how to reach students is strong, even when it doesn’t make sense to include a student focus.

But more often than not, public relations campaigns must focus on audiences that are decidedly not like you. Understanding how to reach those audiences takes a skill (a trait?) I don’t think we talk about in public relations much, but I would rank high on the “must haves”: empathy.

Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s place and understand their feeling, emotions, motivations and values. Many argue it’s a core competency of emotional intelligence, widely seen as crucial to business and leadership success.

It’s hard to step outside your comfort zone, to think beyond your life experience and to stretch as a communicator. It’s scary. And an imperfect practice. But it’s also exhilarating! And to be able to do so is powerful. Empathy is the glue that connects everything we do in public relations. At the core, PR is about building and maintaining relationships, right? That must take more than carefully crafted messages, well-designed material and expertly-delivered speeches. People connect with people, not messages and not talking points. Being an empathetic practitioner requires making human connections and making those connections scalable (one-to-one communication is not always an option).

I think empathy is complicated and multi-faceted. But you can start with the first step of any PR campaign, research.

When you start a project where you’ll be reaching a new (to you) audience, do your research! In addition to the standard instruments (surveys, focus groups, questionnaires), try more “informal” methods, too: talk to people and observe. Just talk to people – as many people as you can that might give you some insights and increase your understanding. And observe – look for opportunities to observe how your audiences interact, where they hang out, how they move through time and space. Listen more than you talk and think more than you react.

I would love to hear your thoughts. Do you consider yourself empathetic? How do you know? And how can you develop better skills?

Wheel of Shoes by Sarah and Mike …probably, via Flickr
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