Making Room for Kindness and Empathy in Public Relations

Kind: adj. “having or showing a friendly, generous, and considerate nature.”
Empathy: noun “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”
Aggressive: adj. “pursuing one’s aims and interests forcefully, sometimes unduly so.”

“Publicity is absolutely critical. A good PR story is infinitely more effective than a front page ad.” — Richard Branson

I admit that starting an article with definitions is pretty cliched. But how about starting an article with definitions AND a somewhat-relevant quote from a famous person? No one has ever done that. People, am I right?” — The Author, in a particularly desperate moment.

I work in public relations — an industry where aggressiveness is seen as a positive. Kindness and empathy are usually fairly low down the list of positive attributes — but I firmly believe there is room for both in our industry.

There is a difference between being assertive and being aggressive. We all have needs to be met. There is a time and a place to be assertive in communicating our thoughts, feelings and needs to another person.

If you are simply stating how you feel about something, in a way that is not mean, then you are not being aggressive.

As long as we do not violate the rights of another person, then we are not being unkind to them.

From “Being Mindful and Kind to Others, While Being Assertive” — Annie Mimi Hall (@anniemimihall)

Ultimately, I am measured by the results I get for my clients — and in most cases, that’s media placements. This means working closely with reporters, who often don’t care for people in my industry — and for good reason.

In my job, my main role is connecting vendors and reporters (essentially as an “information pimp”) — through email pitches or picking up the phone (in many ways a lost art in public relations, but that’s a story for another time).

And you develop a thick skin doing this — I get told “no,” or get no response at all, more than I get a positive response. But by coupling a solid pitch with a kind, empathetic approach has worked well for me:

  1. The publicist-reporter relationship is not a one-way street. I spend a fair amount of my time trying to get reporters to write about my clients. OK, more than a fair amount. But I also try to act as a resource — and offer to connect them with sources that aren’t my clients, or give them ideas on whom to contact, including non-clients.
  2. Honesty with reporters is paramount. If I don’t have a customer, I let them know; if I’ve pitched the story to another outlet or writer, I let them know. There’s also times when another reporter breaks embargo and runs their piece early — those are the worst calls to make, telling a reporter that a competitor has broken a promise and gone early.
  3. It’s a fine line between being assertive, being aggressive, and being a bother. There’s a lot of pressure to get media coverage, particularly as the media landscape continues to shrink and daily newspapers — once a major source of news — are being sold for pennies on the dollar. But sometimes, a “no” means “no.” It just ain’t going to happen. I try to find out why — at least get feedback — but with shrinking newsrooms, reporters (even ones I know well) don’t always have time to tell me why, and at that point, it’s time to find other ideas: thought-leadership contributed articles, customer stories, trend stories, etc.
  4. Reporters are people — and deserve your kindness and empathy.There are fewer of them, and more of us — nearly 5 to 1, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. While this presents opportunities (more chances for contributed, on-message content that we can provide), it also means that reporters are being pitched like never before — often with off-target, blast pitches. As a colleague recently wrote, do your research first — and if your story isn’t strong, either make it stronger, or don’t pitch it.
  5. It’s not about relationships. Until it is. Many PR professionals tout their excellent “relationships” with various reporters — ”they’ll write whatever I pitch.” That is simply not true. The story still needs to be good, no matter how close you are to the reporter. That said, when you are truly a resource for a reporter, they are more likely to respond to your call or email quickly.

I’ve heard PR practitioners proudly describe themselves as “bulldogs.” Yet I’ve rarely heard them defined as “kind.” And that’s truly a shame.

(This piece was initially posted to Medium).

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