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Benefits of Empathy for Public Relations, How to use empathy in public relations

As we all continue to struggle with COVID-19, authentic corporate empathy has appeared as never before. Many corporations are performing truly generous acts of social responsibility and kindness. Empathetic commercials abound on TV. That same corporate empathy can and should continue in corporate policies and everyday corporate communications after we get through the COVID-19 problem.

Empathy separates exemplary PR from ordinary communications. Empathy – the ability to understand the feelings of others — is too often missing from business communications. Statistics and information are abundant; empathy is relatively rare. Communications that exude empathy get more attention and better results. Corporate empathy produces many benefits.

Empathy improves customer loyalty. Organizations perceived as caring for others gain greater respect. Consumers and other stakeholders tend to show greater loyalty to companies that understand their viewpoints and take their opinions into account. Most well-regarded CEOs see corporate empathy for employees, customers, business partners and others as essential to a well-run business. PR communications must reflect that corporate empathy.

Empathy improves teamwork, helps avoid and resolve conflicts, and fosters innovation, asserts Katie Paine, CEO of Paine Publishing. Empathy also sells products. People tend to purchase a product when other people they connect with – people who they believe are like them — praise the product.

“Humans telling their own story mean that other humans are more likely to pay attention to the story,” Paine says.

Empathy also improves media pitching, says PR trainer Michael Smart. “It means that you don’t just know the checklist of attributes that makes something newsworthy,” Smart writes for the PRSA. “You know what it’s like to be a journalist or blogger tasked with meeting a content or engagement quota.” Empathy in pitching is the PR professional identifying with the viewpoint of the journalist.

How to Gain & Display Empathy in PR

Following these steps can supercharge your communications through empathy.

First, understand the difference between empathy and sympathy. People commonly confuse the two, notes digital content marketer Daisy Quaker for Moz. Sympathy is understanding and perhaps feeling pity or sorrow for someone else’s struggles. Empathy means understanding the person’s feelings and thoughts from their point of view. It means seeing things from the other’s viewpoint.

“When you do this, you’ll realize that other people most likely aren’t being evil, unkind, stubborn, or unreasonable – they’re probably just reacting to the situation with the knowledge they have,” explain experts at Mind Tools. That doesn’t mean you need to agree with them.

Consider testing your empathy with an online social intelligence test.

Consider the Audience First

Produce content that meets the needs of the audience, connects with their concerns. Portray the organization as understanding of and engaged with the audience’s pain points. Many PR and marketing professionals create a content strategy, and then think about the audience. Reverse that typical process, urges Josh Ritchie, CEO and co-founder of content marketing agency Column Five, writing in Forbes.

“To pursue empathetic content marketing, make this your mantra: Decrease the amount of selling in your content and increase the amount of time listening to and thinking about your customers,” Ritchie advises. Then write content that expresses the organization’s understanding, kindness and good will.

Research your Audience

Research your stakeholders or target audience through social media analytics, surveys and other research methods. Some experts recommend creating customer personas.

If your target customer is a new mom, you might find that she gets little sleep, feels overwhelming love and concern for her baby, and probably experiences stress. She needs solutions to help her streamline chores, keep her baby healthy and happy, and maintain a life outside of motherhood.

Knowing this, you can create content that offers tips on getting a newborn to sleep through the night, suggests Sylvia LeRahl at CopyPress. Or you could share heartwarming videos of mothers and children bonding over your product.

Content producers can feel empathy for their audiences whether they sell industrial components to obscure parts of machines or homemade broths, Quaker says. If you’re creating a blog post on how to work from home think about the parent who’s never had to juggle homeschooling children while holding conference calls. If you’re writing about cyber threats, consider that the risk of a cyberattack may be among the last things a dispersed IT team wants to deal with now.

Include Personal Anecdotes

Include personal stories in your content. Leo Tolstoy could have written an essay about the evils of greed, Quaker notes. Instead he wrote the story “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” in which a farmer dies during the struggle to get one more foot of land even though he already has plenty. Think of childhood memories, past events, relationships, even book’s you’ve read. If you’re writing about budgeting tips, recall a time when you had to watch where every dollar went.

Read Fiction Classics to Learn Story-telling Skills

Marketers often read only marketing materials, but they can improve empathetic skills by reading examples of great stories. Quaker suggests “A Farewell to Arms” by Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King’s “On Writing” or Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.”

Study Covid-19 Examples

All people empathize with the victims of Covid-19 and with the workers on the front lines, but not all leaders have been able to express that empathy. Some corporations, non-profits and government organizations have been exemplary in expressing empathy during the Covid-19 epidemic. Watch for and study corporate communications that are both authentic and empathetic – in advertising, public presentations, and earned media placements. Study the communications techniques and words of Governor Andrew Cuomo, Marc Benioff of Salesforce.com and other caring corporate leaders as they engage with the public. Parse their actions and words to better understand why they are perceived as empathetic. 

How to Measure Corporate Empathy

As more forward-thinking executives recognize benefits of corporate empathy, measuring empathy is increasingly a staple in organizational measurement. Experts have devised varies metrics for quantifying empathy. Paine outlines a six-step program to measure and evaluate corporate empathy. Here’s a summary:

Start with business goals. Determine how PR and marketing can support business goals. Common goals might be increasing qualified leads or reducing costs of attracting and hiring new employees.

Define what empathy looks like in your organization. Gain consensus on the characteristics of empathy to measure. Some possible characteristics include: empower others, ethical, authentic.

Define specific metrics to track. Metrics could include social media comments, customer complaints or employee or customer retention.

Establish a benchmark to compare results to. Measure empathy levels before and after the program to measure progress.

Select a measurement tool. Tools include customer surveys, employee morale studies and social media listening. Find if research already exists. Best practice dictates that you usually need a combination of different measurement techniques appropriate for your company or client.

Bottom Line: The ability to feel empathy – to truly understand other people — separates stellar PR pros from ordinary communicators. Organizations perceived as empathic gain goodwill and attract loyal customers.

Download the 2020 Ultimate Guide to Media Monitoring, Measurement & Analytics for PR & Marketing

This blog post was first published on April 9, 2019 and updated on April 22, 2020.