Empathize for PR Success

Writing’s important to PR, but empathy comes first

A couple times each semester I have the opportunity to talk to students.  At Davenport, GVSU, Ferris, Calvin … typically in PR or marketing classes or to PRSSA groups.  When I speak with PR students I am usually asked the all-important question: “What is the most important skill for the PR professional?”

Early on in my career I would not have hesitated and simply blurted out “writing.”  I still believe solid writing is a non-negotiable skill all PR pros must have.  This especially holds true for those who focus on media relations, trying to share their organization’s important messages through the filter of the news media. Writers at traditional newspapers and magazines can be quite scornful of “flacks” who can’t write up to their level.  Even for new media proponents, good writing is necessary to build and hold an audience. Plus, good bloggers have to overcome writer’s block and post often or risk losing their following.

Today, however, I believe there’s a skill that’s even more important than writing to the successful PR pro — the ability to empathize. Let’s face it, in PR we have many “publics” we need to understand and address.  It’s easy when you’re talking to audiences who think and act just like you do. Unfortunately, 99.9 percent of all PR pros must at times talk to people who aren’t exactly like them.  Which means you need to be able to empathize.

It requires you to understand your audience and know their wants and needs.  It requires you to do the research and maybe conduct some interviews.  The better you understand your audience, the better you will be able to communicate with them. Makes sense, right?

So, if there’s an important initiative at Davenport University that we need to share with others, I have to understand the needs of our key audiences, including our students, our faculty and staff, our alumni, our donors, community leaders and legislators, prospective students and their influencers (i.e., parents and counselors), our board of trustees and … well, I’m sure there are others!  Each have a different perspective on whatever our news item might be, which means we have to tweak our message by audience. One message does not work for all audiences.

So, it starts with empathy.  But it still ends up with writing.  And along the way, you had better be good at research and planning. Oh, and if you have solid design sensibilities and are handy with a camera,  you’re golden!