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Empathy in PR

It obvious that you need to understand people in PR, after all it is a communications business, and being empathetic is a vital attribute for any successful PRO. Agency Stir PR's report, To be Human is to Communicate, takes a neuroscientific approach to pinpoint exactly what empathy is, and how understanding and using empathy is vital in today’s digital age.

First of all, it helps to define exactly what empathy is. The report claims that there are two main components: “The first is an affective response to another person, in other words you share the other person’s emotional state. The second is a monitoring mechanism that helps keep track of the origins of the experienced feelings, as in, you are able to distinguish yourself from the other, yet understand how they experience a specific feeling.”

Alicia Mellish, managing director of Stir PR, puts it more simply: “Empathy allows an individual to understand the world extended from oneself.”

Looking at why empathy is important in PR, Mellish says: “As trends move faster and faster, understanding the end user is crucial. Empathy is the starting point of communication and allows communication to be contextualised.”

Empathy is particulary important in influencer marketing. Mellish continues: “In PR, the direct communication point maybe the ‘influencer'. It is important for the comms person to employ empathy within the context of that influencer. However, it is also important for the comms professional to consider the influencer's audience (the consumer) in order take an informed and empathic approach to messaging. Empathy is one part of the cognitive process involved in human communication, which is what sits at the core of PR.”

The report highlights key ways that PROs can use empathy in their work:

  • PROs should engage in empathetic behaviour both on and offline. Even online they should study the intended audience in regards to how an audience perceives information and tailor language, emotions and format to fit with their perceptions.
  • As it is hard to appreciate another person’s state accurately online, when you cannot see their face or observe their body language or actions, it is useful to develop and use online tools to help interpret the state of mind of the online consumer.
  • Infuencer marketing is key if you want to communicate to consumers in an empathetic way. An influencer is already reaching an audience that is very similar to them and therefore is best placed to empathise with an audience and understand exactly how they will feel about certain messages and brands.
  • The PR agency must also show empathy when planning a communication strategy. As this involves translating and disseminating the brand’s message into different media outlets, which in turn have their own specific audience.

It is certainly not news that empathy is important in PR, but if you want to use empathy well, it is helps to understand exactly what it is, and how to apply it in different situations, from influencer marketing to writing a pitch document.


Developed in collaboration with cognitive neuroscience research lab THECUBE, Stir PR’s report To be Human is to Communicate: the Change in Information Consumption in the Digital Era, is based on a meta analysis of the last 20 years’ of neuroscience data and findings. There exists 20 years’ worth of good research that was mined and interpreted versus doing an EEG study. 

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