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!

Thanks Mom and Dad!

What I learned from my parents led to what I love to do today. Thanks mom and dad!

My mom and dad taught me well.  Not intentionally, really, because in many ways they were hands off when it came to me and school work.  My older brothers and I all excelled in school, so they never really felt the need to hover over our homework. I’m not sure it would have done much good anyway since both were immigrants and had limited grasp of English.  Growing up in the depression and WWII Europe, my dad only finished the equivalent of 9th grade.

My mom was an avid reader and encouraged us by taking us to the library each week.  By the time I was in 6th grade I was reading at college level.  I read everything she had on her own bookshelves too, including authors like James Michener and Leon Uris.  Given my appetite for historical fiction, it’s no wonder I became an English major and History minor in college.

My dad, meanwhile, loved to tell stories.  About everything.  About growing up in the Netherlands during the war, about the construction projects he led, about his early years in Canada. He was the kind of story teller who also told the sidebar stories. In some ways I am shy; I’m not the best at walking up to a person I don’t know and starting a conversation. However, I am very receptive to being approached by others and, once engaged, I launch into stories depending on the other person’s interests. And finding out their stories, of course. It’s no fair to dominate the conversation that way.

When you combine the reading/writing trait with story telling, it naturally led to journalism and public relations and, in more recent years, blogging.  Thanks mom and dad. This is a lot more fun than math.