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!

The PR of Evangelism

The public relations aspects of evangelism are really about understanding others’ needs.

Yesterday I sat down at a coffee shop on Grand Rapids’ west side (The Bitter End) to kill a few hours while Conner took his class in Mackinaw Harvest’s sound studios. A copy of USA Today was lying on a table next to me, so I checked it out and found an interesting Forum piece by Tom Krattenmaker titled “How to sell Christianity? Ask an atheist.”  Krattenmaker writes about “recovering evangelist” Jim Henderson, who learned from atheists all of the common practices of evangelicals that turn non-Christians off.

I don’t think that Henderson is less of an evangelical today. He just approaches evangelism differently.  He allows *who* he his and *how* he is in relationship to *you* to be the message.  He doesn’t come at you with a sales pitch. He comes to you with his hands open, palms up, being who he is and demonstrating a true interest in you, REGARDLESS of your response to him.  It doesn’t matter if you become a Christian or not, he will still be interested in you because, after all, that’s what God has called for Christians to do. Love others as you love yourself.

After intentionally talking with atheists, Henderson discovered all the things that Christians do that turn people off.  Things like “I’m right, you’re wrong” and referring to non-believers as “lost.”  I also loved Krattenmaker’s assertion that “if you want to have influence … you have to be willing to be influenced. … If not, would anyone want a conversation with you?”  It’s true in religion, politics, and just about every sphere of life: Don’t discount my thoughts, my ideas, my experience. I want to hear about yours, but you need to listen to mine, too.  That’s really important in Social Media, by the way. It’s OK to want your ideas to be heard, but to get there you’re going to need to listen and respond to the ideas and expriences of others, too.

Good public relations involves research and understanding your target audience, so it’s not much of a surprise to me that evangelicals, when considering a PR approach, need to do a better job of understanding their audiences and refining messages and approach. Too often organizations turn off their target audiences because their messages sounds too much like a sales job. This is true for Christians on a “mission” to convert non-believers and it’s true for sales companies looking to convert the general public into buying consumers.

I think the best sales approaches are the ones that don’t have to try to hard to get people to nod their assent.  Instead, people are attracted to the organization or the product because it solves a need in their life. The person or program representing that entity has made themselves available and open to the target audience. In the process, you might tell your story or you might create a lasting impression, but you do not hit them over the head with it in a way that makes their eyes glaze over.

The most effective examples of evangelization to me are those who strive to “be” the message. Here I am, an (oh so) imperfect man, saved by the grace of God alone, because he loves me and all of mankind. I fail Him all the time in my response to circumstances around me and the choices I make, but He does not fail me.  This gives me peace.  Now, tell me about you. What do you want to talk about?  I want to know you better and find out how I can help you! No strings attached.

Mother Teresa was a good example. I have no doubt that her mission also was to expand God’s kingdom and to witness unto others. But her approach was to minister to the needs of those in Calcutta. Of course, the needs there were so extreme and obvious, it was perhaps a more obvious approach than here in North America, where the needs of an otherwise healthy, well-off non-believer may lie below the surface.

Opinions about what public relations is will vary depending on who you talk to. For some, it’s the function that tries to get media mentions for brands or organizations. For others, its the party-planning function. Some think it’s speechwriting. Others think it’s “spinning” a bad situation good…convincing you the “rightness” of my point of view.  For me, what PR does is in the name. PR relates to publics. That means we know the publics and they know us. We can empathize with those publics and understand their needs. We have an open, two-way communication based on mutual respect. I want to introduce myself, get to know you, understand how I can help you, and let  you know when I need your help. 

Sounds like common sense, doesn’t it?

Not Meant to be Alone

We were not meant to be alone in this world. We have ears to listen and a mouth to talk. Social media can help ensure that nobody suffers from loneliness.

People are not made to be alone. They are inherently social beings. That is my belief, anyway.  I know there are loners and hermits. Often, however, they are that way because their earlier attempts at being social went awry or, in the case of religious loners, it is to enhance their relationship with God. The Unabomber was alone, and look how that turned out!  Tom Hanks was alone in Castaway. But it wasn’t right! He made friends with a volleyball and then risked it all just to be reunited with others.

Being cast away, alone, separate from others. It’s not right. God made us with the ability to communicate so that we could, well, communicate! He gave us ears to listen to what others have to say.  He gave us a mouth with vocal chords so that we could share. He gave us tears  to sympathize. He gave us hands to hold.  Wow, I could keep going on forever with that sappiness, couldn’t I?  

Social media has obviously had a huge impact on how people communicate.  People who were otherwise social now are more social or perhaps social in different ways and with more people. I think the bigger change, however, is that some people who were otherwise reclusive, or at least less social, now have the ability to communicate with others in low-risk ways. I think there are some people active in social media who would not have thrived as well in the pre-Web 2.0 world.

I think of the guys at one party I went to in college who were watching Monty Python’s Holy Grail in the living room, reciting each line, singing each song. When the movie was shut off halfway through, they looked up, blinking, not quite sure how to interact with others in the room.  I think in today’s Web 2.0 world they’d be chatting it up with like-minded Holy Grailians, making plans for a tweetup in NYC to watch Spamalot on Broadway.

More importantly, there are people who really have led miserable lives who can now find others who will talk to them and help. People who don’t know where else to go with their problems now find listening ears (provided they search … some on Twitter won’t follow you back unless you have a blue-and-white ‘verified’ mark on your profile pic). People who might find it hard to converse face-t0-face might actually experience what social interaction is all about and, perhaps, find ways of translating that into their real lives.

I think there are fascinating studies to be conducted, if they’ve not already been done, to see what social media’s affect on rates of reclusivity.  There are many human conditions that impact quality of life, and I think that social media can help with one of them: being alone. We were not meant to be alone, and now there are more ways to ensure that we can move out of that condition and into a full life complete with social interaction.

Crisis response = minutes, not hours

Crisis communication response times are now measured in minutes, not hours (certainly not weeks)

In the media training I helped lead last week we discussed the slow response of certain business leaders in the wake of crises affecting their brands. With social media, what once was just a little slow would today be considered glacial. 

One case study we discussed was the emergency landing by Captain “Sully” of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River a little more than a year ago.  The successful emergency landing on the river, famously captured on a cell phone camera, occurred at 3:30 p.m.  The evacuation onto the wings of the Airbus A320 happened quickly, and within minutes nearby commercial ferries were taking on the passengers. Capt. Sully, who first walked through the plane twice to ensure all passengers had been evacuated, emerged as America’s newest hero.

At 4:55 p.m., fire crews began to stand down.  All the cable news channels had extensively covered the situation. Many interviews of experts and witnesses and analysts had been conducted. By that time, there was little that the American public didn’t know about what had happened. A jet airliner landing on the river in NYC?! Post 9/11, the media are super-prepared to be all over a situation like this.

At 5:07 p.m., US Airways CEO Doug Parker issued a statement during a news conference at the airline’s headquarters in Tempe, Arizona, confirmed that there had been an accident. He didn’t really say much more than that.  He didn’t use the opportunity to praise Captain Sully, with whom he had already spoken on the phone.  He didn’t say, “We’re thrilled that the expertise of our flight staff prevented this from being a much more dire situation.”  After all, all 155 occupants of the ditched jet survived!  By the time he stood at the podium, he knew his airline had just been presented the biggest gift ever — an accident that couldn’t be avoided, but only minor injuries and some property loss.

Now, 90 minutes isn’t that much time, especially if a number of meetings and discussions had to occur before the hastily assembled news conference.  That said, more information needed to come from Mr. Parker and, more important, some emotion. People know that some accidents are going to happen and are unavoidable. But, people want to see a human reaction to crises … not some “don’t-say-too-much-for-fear-of-lawsuit” statement.

For weeks, the crisis at Toyota has been building.  A little less sensational, but affecting many more people. Quality issues have now resulted in the recall of 9 million cars worldwide. Again, people don’t expect mechanical things to be perfect, but they do expect the manufacturers of mechanical things to not only fix the problem, but to publicly acknowledge the errors and demonstrate some *human* remorse.  Not just a statement. Not just a policy. Not just a fix.  They want to see real people saying real things about real situations.

Toyota’s president, Akio Toyoda (grandson of company founder), was part of a hastily arranged news conference Friday night (earlier today) and apologized, taking personal responsibility for the problems. “I deeply regret that I caused concern among so many people,” he said. “We will do our utmost to regain the trust of our customers.”  He acknowledged this is a crisis (Really? You didn’t know that earlier?) and he also apologized to shareholders for the 20% drop in company stock.

That he is apologizing and taking this seriously is great.  That it’s happening a few weeks after the news first broke is not so great.  And while I believe shareholders are indeed an important audience, an apology to them should be done through a shareholder-only communication. Doing so in the news conference only indicates that the only reason Mr. Toyoda is up there is because the crisis is affecting financials, rather than the fact that his faulty cars are affecting people.

I appreciate good brakes. This morning, while I was taking a left out of a parking lot, some oncoming cars were stopped to allow me through.  Little did I know, however, that another car was barreling down the left turn lane.  The driver/cell phone talker, however, did have good enough sense and brakes to come to a skidding stop as I inched across the lane. Thank you for good brakes to unknown car maker (I don’t remember what make of car it was … it could have been a Toyota!).  

I want Toyota to say, “We’re sorry that a faulty process has led to this. We will do our utmost to ensure this doesn’t happen again and to make sure every Toyota owner has complete confidence in their car’s mechanical abilities!” I don’t own a Toyota personally, but I believe I drive next to many of them every day. 

And I want them to say these things early in the game and not weeks later when their stock is crashing. That’s all I want.

Tear jerkers, empathy and PR

Crying at movies = empathy = public relations?

I’ve mentioned before that sometimes I cry at movies. I’m reminded of that last night as I watch “Bridge to Terabithia” with my kids. We saw it in the theater a few years ago and my kids thought it was funny that I cried during the movie. SPOILER ALERT … Read no further if you still want to watch this movie!

OK? Alright. Well, the movie is about a boy who is a bit of an outcast because his family is poor.  Then, a new girl moves in next door and she’s a bit of an outcast too because she’s different. The two become friends and, after school, spend time creating their own imaginary kingdom in a nearby woods called Terabithia. They also join forces at school to deal with a few of the bullies that make their lives miserable. So far so good. As far as family movies go, it was imaginative and interesting. Then, out of nowhere, the girl dies!  The boy took a special trip with a teacher and wasn’t around when the girl visited “Terabithia” and accidentally drowned in the engorged stream running through the woods. The boy was devastated … his only friend had just died and he felt somewhat responsible.

Just a movie? I guess. But I love good stories and my problem(?) is that I empathize with the characters. There are lots of movies that have pulled me in that way.  Like in “Forrest Gump,” when Forrest (Tom Hanks) asks Jenny (Robin Wright Penn) if his son is “like him,” meaning mentally challenged …  like after George (John Travolta) has died in Lace’s (Kyra Sedgewick) arms in “Phenomenon” and then she is alone, on the porch, overcome with grief … or when Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) breaks down toward the end of “Schindler’s List,” wondering how many more Jews he could have bought with his car, his ring, his watch.  I can remember each scene and why it brings tears to my eyes … feeling the anguish of the characters and placing myself in their situations.

Good acting, yes. Great stories, certainly. They made me empathize with these characters. They made me feel their emotions, even though they were just acted out. Of course, that empathy extends to the real people I meet and know. There is the grief I have personally felt … but also the heart pangs for others’ losses.  The love I’ve experienced … and recognizing it in the way others might hold hands or look at each other.  There are the distressing moments I’ve lived … and knowing that look in another’s eyes.

The ability to empathize with others is, in my opinion, one of the most important skills required of PR professionals. It’s not just the ability to write well or know how to use the communication tools of the trade. Turning a good phrase and knowing which side looks better on camera and having an idea which editor will lend an ear to your spiel are all good to have in your PR toolbox.  But knowing people and what they need and what they feel and why … that’s what defines true PR pros.

When you understand and empathize with people in their situations, you better understand how they will receive information and respond.  Not only that, you have a better sense of what your organization needs to do to make them happy. PR’s role is to know its audience. Not just who they are and where they are, but why they are and how they are.  To truly know why and how, you need the ability to empathize.

Why is the disgruntled person that way? It requires understanding of their experience and then imagining how you would feel in the same situation.  When I was with Amway, I met a number of the online “critics” of the company. Few of them were truly against the Amway business; most felt there were some flaws with how the business was being conducted and felt the need to inform or warn others. Simply disagreeing doesn’t help. Acknowledging their experiences and explaining what you’re really doing to change the situation might. 

Empathizing with key audiences requires a lot of work. It’s not merely found in a white paper. It requires living and breathing, it requires experience, it requires wading through the lives of others.  

The kids are on Christmas break, so today I took Dillon and Jack to see “Where the Wild Things Are.” You guessed it. I got all misty eyed again at a movie made from a kids book.