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.