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

What if You Don’t Have a PR Degree?

I have had more than one request from young professionals or soon-to-be graduates who do not have or will not get a PR degree and are interested in working in PR in some capacity. So do you have to have a degree in PR to do this work? Nope. In fact, I’d venture a guess that the clear majority of folks working in PR don’t have PR degrees. A career in PR is often the result of a circuitous path.

Disclaimer: I have a PR degree. My students in the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon will all have PR degrees. Having a PR degree gives you the language of the industry and a unique approach to the work and our program at the UofO is very focused on real world activities and training strategic, creative thinkers. With that said…

What can you do to move into public relations or start your career there, when your degree says something like English Literature or Sociology or International Studies? Basically, get experience.

Some tips:

  • Volunteer: Can you volunteer a few hours a week at a local nonprofit? Participate as a PR volunteer writing newsletter articles, or pitching the media human interest stories about your organization. Chances are, that organization would love to have some free help and you can get some great experience. If you don’t know much about PR, find an organization that has someone who can mentor you.
  • Read, read, read: Many many smart PR people are blogging, tweeting and putting out info every day that you can learn from. Find a few you like and soak up all you can. If you’re not sure where to start, on the right navigation of this blog are some of my favorites.

    Beyond blogs, and PR focused material, it’s also important to be an avid consumer of media, generally, and to know what’s going on in the world.

  • Network: Participate in PRSA or IABC events in your local community. Get to know the PR folks. PR is a pretty small world and you’ll find your contacts will carry you far.
  • Update your skills: If you feel like you’re lacking the technical skills necessary for that first internship or job, find a way to get some practice. Take a skills course at your university or community college that focuses on PR, for example. Or ask a local PR prof what book they typically use in their courses or books they’d recommend. Generally, we’re pretty nice and are happy to help someone who is enthusiastic about what we do.
  • Intern: Seek out more formal internships, either in-house or with an agency. Depending on your market, you may be competing with PR grads (in Portland, Ore. for example), but if you’ve prepared yourself, you will be able to hold your own and show you deserve a chance.

If you’ve “fallen into” PR and have more tips… or if you’re working in PR and see the path that those around you have taken, please share!

Tips for Your First Agency Job

Paull Young of Forward Podcast spends about 10 minutes chatting with a two men – one a Sr. VP and the other at an entry-level position in an agency about skills, tips and advice for your first agency job. Some great tips!

David Jones is a Senior Vice President at Fleishman Hillard, Toronto, and one half of the excellent Inside PR podcast. Ed Lee is a senior consultant at iStudio and the author of Blogging Me, Blogging You. Between the two of them they have 19 years of experience in PR agencies.

David Young (the Sr. VP): A good understanding of media, being well-read and following different media. Being interested in media. Strong foundation in writing skills are also important. He says these are the two core factors. At a personality level, he’s looking for someone who can add to the team. He may be hiring a jr. level person, but is looking ahead. Could this person develop into a leader on a team? with clients?

Ed Lee (the entry-level): Adds to David’s advice and says to bring enthusiasm and try stuff out!

Listen for some more great tips! Thanks, Paull (and guests).

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