Why Empathy is a PR Pro’s Most Powerful Asset and Overlooked Liability

Graphic illustration dialogue between two people. Communication. Telepathy. Empathy.

Let me just disclose upfront: I’m no emotional intelligence guru.

Here is who I am: I’m an agency VP with a decade of experience navigating all kinds of situations—from the thorny to the deeply gratifying, to the mundane to the you-wouldn’t-even-believe-it. And I also just happen to be someone making an effort to be more empathetic in different areas of my life.

Based on my experience and observations, I have come to realize that arguably the most powerful and profound asset any PR professional can have is a strong, adept sense of empathy.

Addressing Client Needs, Said and Unsaid

An age-old classic client tale: The client comes to you with a very specific ask, and it just seems...off.

The ask might be that you reach out to a reporter making a request you deem unwise or that you distribute a statement that, in your opinion, misses the mark. In either case, it’s something that you’re not entirely comfortable with.

After taking a step back and examining the situation, you eventually identify the client’s underlying, perhaps not-so-obvious, need or concern prompting that ask. Then you realize there is, in fact, an alternative solution that, while different from the initial ask, will ultimately be more effective at addressing the yet-to-be-resolved issue at hand. So, you suggest that alternative approach, the client gives an OK, and (thank the PR heavens!) order has been restored in the client-agency universe.

While this describes just one kind of scenario, there’s a wide range of client situations where a timely flex of your powerful-and-sculpted empathy muscle can prove pivotal.

Whether you are drafting client talking points, brainstorming your client’s next big initiative or having a frank conversation with your client in the midst of a media storm, the extent to which you are able to tap into and understand your client’s thoughts, feelings and point of view can be the difference maker between the client-agency relationship turning out to be a short-term, soulless stint or a passionate, decades-long romance.

From Client Relations to Media Relations

The same concept applies to your media relationships.

Whether you are identifying the appropriate reporter for an exclusive, crafting a tailored pitch or widely distributing a major announcement, your ability to tap into the mind of the journalist can make the difference between The Wall Street Journal sending an interview request, or a “please, please, for goodness’ sake, I beg of you, don’t you ever dare email me again” request.

Here are some self-guiding questions to help you minimize the chances of that latter outcome:

  • For this reporter, what aspect of my client are they likely to be most interested in?
  • What are the reporter’s biases I should consider as I reach out to them?
  • What are my own biases, and how are they potentially working against my efforts?

Regularly asking yourself those kinds of questions — tailored to the context of media relationships, and to the contexts of client relationships and coworker relationships — will strengthen your PR empathy muscle, preparing you for success in those moments when its use is most vital.

Beware the Tragedy of the Everybody-Pleasing Publicist

The other, darker side of this story: a look at the dangers of empathy misuse and overuse.

Kim Scott, author of "Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity," says one harmful form that empathy takes is ruinous empathy, a term she uses to categorize behavior or feedback that is “‘nice’ but ultimately unhelpful or even damaging.” The former Google executive illustrates the point by giving the example of “seeing somebody with their fly down, but, not wanting to embarrass them, saying nothing, with the result that 15 more people see them with their fly down. So, not so ‘nice’ after all.”

Now, shifting the focus back to PR agency life: my observation is that an excess of empathy can take PR professionals down the path of putting everyone else’s feelings, thoughts and point of view above their own. Where that path leads is the practice of people-pleasing, which will significantly hamper your ability to do the kind of high-impact work that ultimately moves the needle for your clients.

An excess of empathy could be leading you in the wrong direction if you find yourself:

  • Feeling that you are responsible for your clients’ happiness.
  • Perceiving day-to-day setbacks as major, existential crises.
  • Holding back on giving your honest opinion during high-stakes situations.
  • Prioritizing everyone else’s time over your own.
  • Saying yes to literally anything and everything.

How I would describe the role of empathy in the PR professional’s arsenal: it is one thing — and an extremely important, useful thing — but it isn’t everything. So, what’s the takeaway here? Empathy is best applied when it is balanced with healthy boundaries, and supported by the wisdom of being able to distinguish between which battles are worth fighting and which aren’t.

While there are no secret shortcuts to developing the ideal balance of those ingredients, there certainly are helpful resources that can get you on the right track, like this New York Times in-depth feature on how to be more empathetic, this Harvard Business Review guide on setting better boundaries, and this prompt on ChatGPT: “Tell me which battles I should and shouldn’t fight at work! Please and thank you.”

But frankly, true growth and progress in those areas by and large comes from time, experience, observation and trial-and-error. Though, I suppose…if by any chance you do happen to find a secret shortcut, maybe you could share it with me?

Jacob Streiter is VP, Rosen Group.