Why aren’t PR professionals talking about (not to mention, practicing) empathy more?

Being a PR professional married to a (music) therapist can be a humbling experience. I’m the professional persuasive communicator, but routinely she’s the one teaching me how to communicate effectively. This is more a testament to my personality rather than my profession, but I routinely approach a difficult situation wanting to be right, whereas she is seeking reconciliation.

First in that process is empathy, something that is woefully undereducated in PR programs and underappreciated by young and old professionals alike. It’s by no means an entirely foreign concept to public relations, but it is one that isn’t recognized and elevated appropriately, in my opinion.

According to a recent PR Daily article, proving value is the No. 1 concern for public relations professionals. As we fight for credibility and legitimacy, this concern often leads to an increased focus on metrics, and subsequently, tactics that are easily quantifiable.

We, as a profession, want to know how to get our pitches read. Drive social engagement. Increase brand awareness. But we’re also starved for time, which routinely leads to us approaching these goals formulaically, so we can move onto the next challenge as quickly as possible.

What’s lost here is taking the time to really listen to stakeholders and their concerns, and then more importantly, incorporating their feedback into both short- and long-term messaging and strategy. Given the core function of PR, this practice should be commonplace, so why is it difficult?

Public relations is not the same as marketing

There’s a tragic irony in that PR has, well, a PR problem – namely how it distinguishes itself between adjacent professions like marketing and advertising. I’m quick to pull out my soapbox when someone suggests PR is synonymous with marketing – or worse, a subset of marketing. This isn’t a knock against marketing. But the core definitions are fundamentally opposed.

Marketing seeks to promote and sell an organization and its goods/services. Public relations aims to build and maintain mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and its stakeholders. There is something inherently self-serving about the former, whereas the latter, at least in theory, should be balanced. It ought to be easy to distinguish between these two within an organization, but unfortunately, public relations isn’t always seen in the same light as other departments.

The ‘seat at a table’ struggle is real

Beginning in graduate school, I started hearing about how PR needs a “seat at the table.” It seemed comical just how frequently this phrase was parroted by professors, PRSA folks and other professionals. Now that I’m nearing 15 years in the profession, man, the struggle is REAL.

Routinely I’ve seen PR put in a box, brought in too late, given unrealistic mandates, expected to put a band-aid on a bigger/deeper issue or dismissed in favor of other departments “more critical” to the organization’s success. In these situations, it’s hard to make the case for pausing things so you can conduct an assessment of what key stakeholders are saying – a practice that easily can be seen as too cost-, time- or labor-intensive. This especially is true when there isn’t even an existing infrastructure to gather that feedback.

Not that it’s an impossible task, but without equal footing to other “top tier” functions within an organization, PR’s role erroneously can be defined by those without a proper view of its function and potential.

Empathy and humility go hand in hand

Once you’ve taken the time to empathize with someone, there frequently is a need to lay down some of your needs or preferences to accommodate theirs. Even between two individuals, this demands a great deal of humility – another concept that isn’t given enough attention on the corporate level, in my opinion.

Anyone who’s sat through a PR or marketing 101 course should be familiar with some variation of the Awareness->Interest->Engagement->Action->Advocacy model. This is a basic flowchart to help relay the fundamental stages of persuasive communication, yet it’s almost exclusively framed as a tool for getting others on board with your brand’s mission rather than the other way around.

Organizations that truly want to embody an empathetic posture must be willing to both candidly (and regularly) assess their stakeholders’ feedback and be open to the same change they hope to see in their constituents. (Can you imagine what it’d look like for a brand to not just receive and respond to negative feedback, but to also change its operations and be an advocate for similar changes within its industry?!?)

I generally try not to lament on a problem without offering some type of constructive advice. All of this starts with developing a routine, effective way to gauge your key stakeholders’ (both internal and external) concerns, needs and wants. Fortunately, I recently wrote ALL ABOUT THAT in this blog post – just be willing to do something with the feedback!

One of my first jobs in PR involved issues monitoring for a major U.S. consumer brand. Every day, I’d scour the news and internet for complaints, and then our team would segment these into key issues with recommendations on how to address them via a monthly report. Month after month, the same issues persisted, which baffled me. I asked my manager what the company planned to do to remedy them, to which she candidly responded, “Honestly, nothing. They have us do this because it’s what brands are ‘supposed to do,’ but they aren’t interested in having this feedback impact their corporate strategy or operations.” Years later, I still shake my head when I see this company routinely place second (or worse) behind its industry leader in virtually every customer-satisfaction ranking.

There’s a reason top companies of choice for employees and customers alike have a reputation for listening and responding to their key stakeholders’ concerns and needs. Like my wife, they’re not trying to be right, they’re trying to do what’s right.

Greg Surber

Greg Surber, APR, is a public relations strategist through and through. He works on a variety of accounts, leading research projects and content strategies, but he also has extensive experience with more traditional PR efforts including national and trade media relations campaigns.

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