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Imagining the lives of others: the paradox of empathy in public relations and implications for the curriculum
“Exploring parallels and linkages in international public relations and intercultural communication: theory development and implications for education
EUPRERA Congress 2016Slide2
What is empathy?
affective response that stems from the apprehension or comprehension
emotional state or condition and is similar to what the other person
or would be expected to
feel” (Eisenberg et al, 1994 in Eisenberg, 2000, p. 671 )
simply: stepping into another person’s
Empathy as contemporary concern
today, empathy seems to be of greater concern than ever before, as researchers from multiple disparate disciplines have become convinced of its relevance to a wide range of issues, such as the nature and conditions of morality and moral judgments, how we understand one another, what makes certain political candidates appealing, how and why we engage with works of art, what characterizes psychopaths and bullies, how medical workers should interact with their patients, and the recipe for successful psychotherapy
, 2011, p. 41)Slide4
Paradox of empathy: self/other orientations
empathy is a form of perspective-taking
is subject to ego-centric bias
cannot always predict how a person different
us, or even similar to us, might
and is therefore unreliable
Also relates to ‘role-taking’ (Mead, 1934)
True (authentic) empathy
orientated and operates at the level of feeling
: suppresses our own perspectives in order to focus on the ‘other’ and their feelings in their particular situation. (Calloway-Thomas, 2010;
Types of empathy
: high level perspective-
taking or “recognition of another’s difficulties, coupled with some understanding about the nature and causes of these difficulties”.
: “experiencing the distress of another at a physical level”. [also known as ‘emotional contagion’; ‘catching’ emotion]
(Clark, C. 1997, cited in Turner and Stets, 2005).
or affective empathy
: feeling what other people might feel or “actually having an emotional reaction to a person’s plight.” It is also culturally regulated (what people
how this should be displayed
empathetic skill (Calloway-Thomas, 2010)
: also known as a ‘social emotion’ (Eisenberg, 2000). Associated with feelings of guilt and shame in relation to another person’s emotional state.Slide6
The business discourse of empathySlide7
Empathy in the public relations literature
Empathy is considered to be a
key principle of dialogue
Provides “an atmosphere of support and trust” (Kent and Taylor, 2002, p. 27)
(1992, p. 21) cite empathy and
social perspective taking
) as valuable competencies of the communication planner, especially as planners have “no direct contact with the people with whom they communicate”.
(Mead, 1934) which is identified as an important part of the public relations process for the practitioner to understand the position of the ‘other’ (Culbertson, 1991; 2009)Slide8
Empathy as a personal attribute in public relations literature
the top three
in four specific professional communication
chief communication officer, crisis communication manager, internal communication manager and social media
manager, according to the ECOPSI study (
survey found that transformational leadership and empathy
as a personal attribute
significant predictors of PR
’ trust, managing employees’ frustration and optimism, taking stances toward employees and top management in decision-making
conflicts (Jin, 2010).
Empathy in PR consultancy relationships: PR executives
skill in public relations agency work which is
learned on the job
manage the feelings and expectations
of clients, journalists and colleagues
the process of
the client about the value of PR work to their business
stories to journalists
(with agency directors/managers)
to ensure that confidence in their account-handling skills are maintained.
strategies suggest ‘deep acting
techniques that could be considered harmful to one’s sense of self; however in
was considered as ‘part of the job’.
more about the other person’s situation enabled practitioners to
of the professional
Empathy in PR consultancy relationships
Senior level perspectivesSlide11
‘Client alignment’ strategies to understand the client’s situation
we do try to understand what pressures they are under because the pharmaceutical industry’s not doing well at the
we suggest things like
and actually sit and work in the client’s office so you can see what’s going
because that sort of chemistry, that relationship I think is terribly important to do
.” (participant 2)
Developing empathy among junior team members
the accounts will have regular internal
it’s a point that you can just say, look guys, you just need to
be on it
remember, always think in their shoes, wear your client’s shoes, what does it feel like
?” (participant 3)
need to win him round to make him reflect on how, if he’s going to develop a career and become a very senior consultant, maybe a little bit more empathy and therefore what are you going to do about it then
?” (participant 4, r
entrant who loudly
complained about a ‘stupid’ client
Understanding client relationships beyond the immediate contact
delivered a campaign for them which got outstanding national coverage and we thought,
wow […] the
next day that client sacked us and the reason why is because what we didn’t
for is the chairman of that company totally disagreeing with the whole news angle that we had come up
though that had been discussed at length with marketing
he never checked with his
chairman”. (participant 1)Slide14
Intercultural communication theory (Calloway-Thomas, 2010) presents empathy as ‘other’ orientated practice based on authentic feelings and imagination.
But, there is a paradox within a business context where empathic skill is framed as a route to career-enhancement and profit, suggesting an instrumental, self-orientation, This particularly applies in a high-pressured PR ‘sales/selling’ environment.
I argue for clear
distinctions to be made between ‘empathy’, ‘role-taking’ and ‘social perspective taking’ in
the PR literature and
for empathy teaching in the curriculum to prepare students for interactions where culturally-sensitive ‘other’ related skills are deemed as essential, while
the commercially-driven motivations for empathy
Calloway-Thomas, C (2010)
Empathy in the Global World: An Intercultural Perspective
Thousand Oaks: Sage.
Clark, C. (1997)
Misery and company: sympathy in everyday life
. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
, A. (2011) Will the real empathy please stand up? A case for a narrow conceptualization.
The Southern Journal of
, H.M. (1991
-taking and sensitivity:
to playing and making public relations roles.
Public Relations Research Annual
Culbertson, H.M. (2009) Role-taking: an important public relations process.
Journal of Media
11 (1), pp.
Eisenberg, N. (2000) Emotion, regulation and moral development.
Annual Review of Psychology
, 51, pp. 665-697.
Hochschild, A. R. (1983)
The managed heart: commercialization of human feeling
. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.Slide16
(2010) Emotional leadership as a key dimension of public relations leadership: a national survey of public relations leaders.
Journal of Public Relations Research
, 22 (2) 159-181.
, M. and Taylor, M. (2002) Towards a theory of dialogue in public relations.
Public Relations Review
, 28, pp. 21-37.
(2013) The neoliberal state and the state of empathy. In:
: Capitalism, Culture and the Brain
in Political Science 10, pp. 43-51.
, G. H. (1934)
Mind, self and
. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
, R. & Moreno, A. (2015).
Mapping communication management competencies for European practitioners.
Journal of Communication Management,
(1), 39 – 61
, J. and Stets, J. (2005)
The sociology of emotions
. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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, B. (1992)
Using communication theory
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