Is empathy the most important skill in PR?

“Being able to empathise with your audience is critical today”, says Kevin Murray, chairman of PR firm The Good Relations Group: “If you think about PR as being, by its definition, about managing relationships with your public, then you have to appreciate that these relationships are a two-way process.” Murray believes that relationships “are the engines of success“ and that a key part of building successful relationships is to understand those you are dealing with and appreciate where they are coming from.

He adds that being empathetic is not just about communicating thoughtfully, but also about acting considerately. But he makes the important distinction that this does not mean saying “yes” all the time: “You don’t have to agree, but you must understand each other in order to make better-informed decisions.”

The first part of relating to other people is to forget your own ego and focus on the other person. Lucy Ellis, associate director at PR firm Hill and Knowlton, says: “Only by putting our own pressures or worries aside and listening to what clients, journalists or colleagues are telling us are we truly able to build strong relationships. An empathetic PRO will appreciate everything else that a client or journalist has to do – how many other stakeholders they have to respond to, the business pressure they face, or the deadline they need to meet. Last, you must understand how you can help the other person succeed and reach their goals and objectives.”

Some people are naturally less self-interested than others, but everyone is able to develop empathy. Ellis says: “It is simple to develop empathy, you need to try and put yourself in the other person’s shoes – show an interest and don’t be afraid to ask them questions as doing this helps to inform how you work with them. Try to understand what is important to them and what makes them tick. Spend time with them in person and try to also do this out of the work environment to get to know them as individuals.”

Fiona Hughes, head of consumer at agency Firefly Communications, says that one way to develop empathy is to see it as “imagination: brought back down to earth”, adding: “Of course PR people need to imagine the lives of others – because we’d only be able to deliver pretty narrowly targeted campaigns if we didn’t.” This highlights one of the biggest roles of being empathetic in Hughes’ opinion which is “creating relevant campaigns in order to meet our clients’ business objectives.”

As vital as empathy is in creating successful business relationships and campaigns, Zoe Ward-Waring, managing director at communications consultancy Publicasity, says it needs to be coupled with other skills, such as acute listening and observation skills, plus an insatiable appetite to learn. She also points out that you can‘t fake it: “I've no doubt that clients, media, bloggers, colleagues – in fact pretty much any key target recipient of your comms, can spot genuine and fake empathy, so if you can't master the skill, your career will only go so far. Fine tuning it can only enhance how you come across and can make you a much more fun and interesting dinner guest!”


Why empathy is important in PR

Joel Windels, marketing manager EMEA at social media monitoring company Brandwatch:

“Media publications are now driven by social shares, and those that tell the story best are the ones that rise to the surface. Generic, jargon-filled releases flooding the inboxes of journalists aren’t interesting enough. Instead, PROs that weave a compelling narrative around the item they are trying to promote are more likely to get noticed. Empathising not only with the editors to make the item interesting from the start, but also with the customers of and communities around your brand to generate the hook in the first place has become vital.”

Robin Campbell-Burt, associate director at PR agency Spreckley Partners:

"So much of agency-side public relations comes down to the client relationship and this is all built on trust; and empathy goes hand-in-hand with this. While a financial exchange is taking place, this will always be driven by human emotions and this should never be forgotten. One example of a great leader showing empathy has to be Desmond Tutu. The man has tirelessly represented the needs of those pushed to the margins of society for over half a century with a genuine and irrepressible passion for the needs of others – empathy in its purest form.”

Heather Baker, managing director of agency TopLine Communications:

“In my experience, the people who demonstrate emotional intelligence go far. It's more enjoyable and easier to work with them, they have better judgement when it comes to managing clients and staff and anyone with the capacity to put themselves in a journalist's shoes gets better results from pitching.”

Jessica Kirby, junior account executive at PR agency Cirkle:

“Having just completed my apprenticeship at Cirkle, over the year, the importance of empathising with various stakeholders in the development and implementation of client campaigns has become far more apparent than when I entered the industry. Some of our team come from in-house backgrounds (at GSK, Heineken and ESPA) and this really helps us to understand client-side pressures even more – what’s important to them and what’s not and what they prioritise.”

Written by Daney Parker

Creative Moment Awards 2020