In the time of COVID, now’s the time for empathy in public relations

by | Jun 8, 2020 | Analysis, Covid-19, Public Relations

Former President Theodore Roosevelt said it best: “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”

These are trying times due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and we’re all going through a lot of emotions and feelings, and that’s OK.

Back in March, soon after the pandemic hit, I know I felt, and I am sure a lot of you felt as well like it was some Mack truck that came barreling down the road, and all you can do is watch when the truck’s brakes weren’t working, and the vehicle was creating utter mayhem.

For myself and fellow PR and communications colleagues, we had to scramble to find answers on what our work lives would be like, especially as it related to working with the media. Through a good friend of mine, I participated in a webinar with two seasoned PR professionals. The topic was on “best practices for brand communicators in times of uncertainty.” It was a good discussion overall and was most needed, as a large number of us in the PR community didn’t know what or how to deal with the health crisis as it related to our engagement with the media.

We all recall some of the initial responses to our pitches in March from the press: “No, I’m focused on COVID-related stories,” “my beat has moved to cover COVID,” or “I no longer write for X, please contact Y for assistance.”

During this particular webinar, I talked about this new need and appreciation for empathy and humanity in public relations and why it’s even more important during these trying times.

We’re all human, and we have a lot of stuff that we’re all dealing with right now—how not to get the virus; how to keep the lights on; how to put food on the table; how to pay the bill on time; sadness for a relative, friend, colleague, stranger who is dealing with pandemic-related issues.

How can we in the PR community be more empathetic towards one another—and apply these lessons in our day to day lives?

Empathy for the media

We get a lot of flack by the media, and deservedly so, for those bad pitches that wind up in the reporter’s inbox. Every time this happens, I always pause for a second and conclude, “this PR person’s actions are inexcusable, how did this happen?”

When the pandemic hit, I observed on Twitter tweets from several reporters who railed on publicists who sent a tone-deaf pitch. For example, Emily Mullin of OneZero tweeted the following in response to a pitch, “If you work in PR, please think twice before sending a cringe-worthy coronavirus pitch like this (image of the pitch – Death Survivor says: Beat COVID-19 Panic by Living Today).

In the time of COVID, now’s the time for empathy in public

Another example is from Josh Sternberg, formerly of Adweek, tweeted the following to another example of a tone-deaf pitch, “I just can’t. PR people: don’t do this. At all.” (in response to a pitch on beach weekend essentials). Both tone-deaf pitches showed a lack of sensibility and compassion for the reporter, devoid of any empathy, and deservedly lead to public shaming.

In the time of COVID, now’s the time for empathy in public

Ketchum would then come out with their suggestions on how best to pitch the media during the pandemic, and one of their guidelines that spoke to me was, “Empathize: Treat media like the people they are. Like all of us, they are changing the way they live and work during this unusual time.” Ketchum nailed it on this bit of advice; we’re all human at the end of the day.

A number of us have built relationships with our ‘media friendlies.’ Have any of you asked your good media contacts how they are holding up? Or if there is anything you can do to help them out with their day to day duties? A simple question like this will go a long way.

Empathy for fellow PR peers and colleagues

It doesn’t matter if you work at one of the biggest agencies or you’re a contractor, we’re all feeling the effects of the pandemic in some way, shape, or form, and as humans, we’re dealing with a lot of stuff at the time.

For our comrades in communications, check-in with them to see how they are doing, how they are holding up, anything you can do to help out. Bears repeating but approaching with a sense of compassion will go a long way.

We like to say that we’re in this together, but do we mean it? Or do we want to mean it? Ask yourself, when was the last time you showed any compassion or empathy towards a reporter, client, or colleague? And further, can you see the value of being empathetic during this pandemic crisis and how much we all need it at this time.

To that end, what will drive home compassion and empathy is the desire to be an excellent listener—listening from the media and peers on how they are doing, responding with genuine interest and concern to what they are saying. Becoming a good listener will help us be better at our jobs, and most important as human beings.

Once we’re truly able to master the craft of being an excellent listener, we can then move forward with a new, improved way of communicating with one another, which I think will be a good silver lining in this current crisis.

John McCartney
John McCartney, APR, is a Principal at Jmac PR, a boutique Strategic PR and Marketing Communications agency based in Los Angeles. He is a PRSA-LA board member (Treasurer) and serves on the DEI and Sponsorship committees. You can connect with John on Linkedin, follow him on Twitter at @johnny_mac, or learn more at  www.jmacpr.com.