Tip Sheet: Put the Humanity Back in Communications

For all of the time we corporate communicators spend talking about our audience, it’s astounding how little we think about the actual people we communicate with (or, to be precise, who we communicate at).

Sure, we talk quite a bit about who we aspire for that audience to be. Perhaps we have a lot of survey data, focus group results and other market research data to draw on. Or perhaps we have some segmentation profiles that imagine some aggregate person we could communicate with.

One thing is for sure: Turning people into numbers or segments makes them a lot easier to deal with and control.

But we lose a lot in that quest for control. In the process of simplifying our audiences, our understanding of them becomes rudimentary and crude. In the name of measurability and scalability, we lose the color of who these people are. And that means we start seeing the world in gray scale.

This phenomenon is certainly not isolated to corporate communications; it pervades the way business logic operates.

However, it’s especially sad to see this happening to us. After all, we’re the department tasked with engaging the audience. If anyone should truly understand the audience, it should be us.


In her book Your Call Is (not that) Important to Us, journalist Emily Yellin (a collaborator of ours) points out that, in the early 20th century, “public relations” referred to the people who answered customer calls at AT&T.

It’s amazing to look at all the effort we’ve put into distancing ourselves from actually relating to the public since that time. We seek out mass advertising and professional journalists to stand in for actual interaction. And people throughout many marketing/communications teams have never actually experienced the company as a customer or potential customer.

Yet, we are supposed to be communication experts. And Communications 101 told us that listening is more important than talking; that responding to audience feedback is crucial; and that communication only works when it addresses what the audience wants and needs to hear rather than what the speaker wants to say.

We know this on an interpersonal level, but we often forget to translate it to our work. Advertising focuses on how to align the audience with what the company wants to sell. Press releases are too often written to consider only what the company wants to say.

In the process, there’s one thing missing from our “communications”: actual communication.

In a world where customers can tweet about our companies or ask us questions directly, this mentality is starting to change. But we’re still doing all we can to keep that direct interaction contained. An obsession on impressions, circulation, views and “likes” remains. We still build branded platforms and then focus most of our energies on these controlled environments where we can prod audiences for data.

If we do have to stray outside our own space, we try to build something that can go viral, in hopes of infecting the masses with a message. These are all shortcuts to avoid actual communication in our communications.


The only way to overcome this issue is to devote energy into actually understanding our company—and the world—from our audience’s perspective. This requires:

• Ethnographic forms of research;

• Online listening programs that consider the context of what people say and applies that intelligence to the way companies think and operate; and

• Most importantly, communicators who personally spend some time in their audiences’ shoes as best they can, bringing that way of thinking to their job every day.

At Peppercom we are launching an Audience Experience offering that immerses a company in its audience’s point of view.

These efforts are built on the belief that effective communication requires listening and empathy. Such a philosophy can uncover gaps between what a company says and what its audiences experience.

To do our jobs, we have to think as much—maybe more—about the interests of the audiences we are trying to reach and what life is like in their shoes as we send the message our company wants us to deliver. After all, in the long run, communication that doesn’t serve the audience doesn’t actually serve our employers or clients. PRN

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Sam Ford is director of digital strategy at Peppercom. He can be reached at sford@peppercom.com.