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Is empathy dead in America? How consumers think companies should address sensitive topics

by | Oct 27, 2021 | Public Relations

In a wildly divisive age, Americans fear that empathy is plummeting in business and society at large, and they blame news media, social media and politicians, among other factors. New research from Method Communications reveals that although nearly 25 percent of Americans find that empathy “doesn’t matter,” an overwhelming majority (73 percent) agree it would be better for society if people were more empathetic. But unfortunately, 42 percent say empathy has actually outright declined over the past year, and of these, more than 80 percent are concerned about that decline.

These are the findings in the firm’s new report, Is Empathy Dead in America?, with research partners at Dynata, which surveyed more than 2,000 Americans to evaluate the state of empathy through the lens of companies, customers and culture.

According to the report, the meaning of empathy can generate a range of reactions from Americans—for some, the term has evolved to include various displays of sympathy or pity; others had a negative view of empathy, seeing it as a sign of weakness. Despite this disparity, the report provides a blueprint for how business and society can breathe life back into empathy.

Is empathy dead in America? How consumers think companies should address sensitive topics

Companies: Be true to your words

The research found that Americans are divided when it comes to brand activism:

  • Thirty-seven percent of respondents said brands should take a stance on public issues, 20 percent think they shouldn’t, and 26 percent say they only should if it directly relates to the brand or its customers. Nearly a third (29 percent) acknowledge that taking a public stance on a social or political issue is an effective way of practicing empathy.
  • One-third (32 percent) of those who object to companies taking a stance on sociopolitical issues think
  • it could damage corporate DE&I efforts or alienate employees who do not agree with the stance (34 percent).

Is empathy dead in America? How consumers think companies should address sensitive topics

However, brands should keep in mind that despite the public’s desire to see companies practice empathy, a majority of Americans (66 percent) are skeptical when brands do speak up:

  • Generating media attention (41 percent), marketing ploys (32 percent) or doing something because it’s popular (32 percent) are some of the reasons why Americans say companies stand up for a cause. Only 25 percent think that companies genuinely believe in the issue.
  • A quarter of Americans also blame large corporations for a lack of empathy in society, saying they have too much power.

Is empathy dead in America? How consumers think companies should address sensitive topics

Technology under a microscope

From being seen as platforms for fake news to having policies that are perceived to infringe on privacy, technology companies are under more scrutiny than other types of businesses. According to the survey, half of Americans (51 percent) think technology brands have a greater responsibility in society and it’s due to their money and influence. However, Americans feel technology companies are falling short:

  • A significant number (47 percent) believe that technology brands have no empathy toward the average consumer.
  • Nearly half of Americans (49 percent) believe that the positions technology brands took on social movements in 2020 were purely PR moves.
  • According to 43 percent of consumers, social media is to blame for declining empathy in society, and nearly a third (30 percent) want technology companies to take the lead in promoting empathy.

Is empathy dead in America? How consumers think companies should address sensitive topics

Despite this, tech brands still hold enough sway that they’ve earned the right to be vocal about their values. More than a third of consumers who say these companies should take the lead in promoting empathy believe it’s because of their position as thought leaders.

Is empathy dead in America? How consumers think companies should address sensitive topics

Customers: Empathy on the inside drives empathy on the outside

It’s not only authentic, external displays of empathy that matter; how companies practice empathy internally is just as important. Sixty percent of Americans say that companies should show empathy to their employees first. How? According to the survey, the most effective ways to show empathy include paying higher wages (43 percent), employing a more diverse workforce (40 percent), and being more accommodating with customers (37 percent).

Taking care of employees makes them happier which translates into satisfied customers. In fact, 55 percent of consumers say they are more likely to purchase from a brand that shows empathy and is “human,” with 54 percent saying they are more likely to shop with that brand when it takes a stance on an issue they agree with.

Culture: Are brands woke enough?

The bottom line: brands should proceed with caution, keeping in mind that they should always back up their sentiment with tangible effort. This is supported by data which found that while 55 percent of Americans think it’s a demonstration of empathy when a company takes a stand on a social or political issue, 50 percent agree the best thing brands can do to be more authentic is to back statements up with action.

  • According to the report, consumers would like top brands to take a stance on minimum wage (67 percent), COVID-19 policies (64 percent), and women’s rights (62 percent). As far as supporting political campaigns or candidates, only 37 percent think this would be the right approach for companies.
  • Nearly 40 percent of Americans say corporate empathy should especially extend towards minority groups in society.

Is empathy dead in America? How consumers think companies should address sensitive topics

Next steps: Bringing empathy back to life

Based on the survey, there are three key areas companies and individuals should consider:

  • Talk less, act more: Consumers have little patience for talk—they want to see action. While aligning with a cultural moment can drive conversation, customers want to see tangible efforts that are relevant to the company’s overall mission.
  • Find your sweet spot: Brands need to live in the sweet spot of empathy—too little can leave the impression that the company doesn’t care about, or is opposed to, an issue. Too much can be perceived as disingenuous. Companies should carefully evaluate which issues and moments align best with its products, values and overall mission.
  • Something is better than nothing: In general, consumers prefer when companies at least attempt empathy rather than staying silent, but it is important to be thoughtful about the cause—speak authentically and execute thoroughly.

Is empathy dead in America? How consumers think companies should address sensitive topics

“Over the past year, we’ve seen brands become much more vocal about various issues, however Americans believe that empathy is disappearing—and that even attempting to be empathetic can cause a backlash,” said David Parkinson, Method co-founder and CEO, in a news release. “As communications experts, we provide guidance to our clients on how to act, and react, when it comes to these issues. It’s crucial to strike the right balance when it comes to displaying empathy, and to always back up words with action.”

Download the full report here.

This report is based on original research conducted by Method, using an online survey distributed by Dynata among n=2,013 Americans ages 16 to 76. Respondents were evenly split between men and women with equally sized generational age groups. Survey data was collected from July 1 to July 8, 2021. Method used Sprout Social to conduct social listening on topics of empathy spanning from July 2019 to August 2021.

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Richard Carufel
Richard Carufel is editor of Bulldog Reporter and the Daily ’Dog, one of the web’s leading sources of PR and marketing communications news and opinions. He has been reporting on the PR and communications industry for over 12 years, and has interviewed hundreds of journalists and PR industry leaders. Reach him at richardc@bulldogreporter.com; @BulldogReporter

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