Empathy Rules! How PR and Crisis Management Must Get Social


I remember how stung I felt, hearing those words from the boss of a small PR company I used to work for. It was right after I recommended his company should be putting more effort into building empathy with clients and co-workers. Instead, what we had was an intentionally silo’ing of the PR and Social Media, PR pitch people doing cold calls and wordy email pitches to media contacts while ignoring them entirely on their own Social Media profiles.


I knew where the problem laid – the company’s founder’s roots were in traditional advertising and brand marketing – successful in a pre-internet business era, but out of date in our “Social age.” No longer was output alone an indicator of productivity, nor pushing content alone an indicator of popularity, and especially not on Social media channels. It wasn’t long before one die-hard PR pitch person of his was laid off, along with a few accounts, and a few more employees who either quit or got fired all in the same year. And this was at a company of barely more than a dozen employees to begin with.

PR Crisis Management: Teaching Empathy to Clients

What I would later learn was that a featured speaker at my local popular meeting venue, had similar issues working in the News industry and found his home in PR. That man is Brad Grantham,  Public Relations Crisis Management expert at French West Vaughn, which touts themselves as helping “brand managers understand how to operate social media in a Web 2.0 world.”

I had the opportunity to chat with Brad after his speaking event at the Triangle Marketing Club in downtown Raleigh; and we discussed the role of responsible journalism, PR and Social Media built around that humane character trait: empathy.

The PR industry’s empathy problem with Social Media

  • The lack of relationship building and non-personalized communication. “It’s is vital to not only make connections but to also form meaningful relationships with people. Not using Social media to do that is a huge liability,”says Brad.  You don’t have to go any further than the Epipen example to realize what happens when PR doesn’t pay attention to the outcry over a product and the seemingly callous indifference towards their customers, ignoring the people power on Social Media while the conversations build and the outrage builds, until it can no longer be ignored – too little, too late. “You can see how much PR is in its own bubble.” He says.
  • The reliance on celebrities over authenticity. “In our Social Media age, Celebrity spokespeople are a liability,” Brad says. Take Jared from Subway, Lance Armstrong, or Ryan Lochte just to name a few major examples. Making matters worse, these same agencies tasked with managing their client’s Social media channels are often guilty of pushing celebrity-fueled content over open conversations with their audiences.
  • A lack of pre-planning for a crisis and having open communication across Social Media. “Trust takes time to build; every second you take to respond to a PR crisis magnifies the erosion of trust.” Which is why building a strategy with reactive response plans in advance to potential crisis situations is imperative.

Empathy Tips for PR and Social in Crisis Management

Build relationships in advance

Build your media contacts across your Social channels. “you could never have too many media contacts, because people move and change career paths, so having a deep portfolio of professional connections is really smart example is building Twitter lists for different groups of journalists, news outlets, and other media/industry contacts. You can also make your Twitter lists public or private. For great example check Twitter Expert @MadalynSklar’s lists.


Build genuine relationships with your media contacts. “Brad considers a great relationship to be more than just a phone call or an email pitch. Instead, it should be one where you help each other out even if it’s giving the other person a tip without getting something in return – they will remember that in the long run.” Social Media is a great opportunity to do that with simple validation, such as a re-share and a personal comment on what a journalist has published, or just a conversation piece you know a media influencer is highly passionate about.

When a crisis hits…

  • Be a good listener and responder. Take questions and show how you’re going to fix the situation.
  • If you don’t know the answer, don’t lie. Lies are quickly exposed.
  • Utilize Facebook Live and other video streaming platforms for real-time announcements and updates, plus allow for audience Q&A. (A good comparison example is with the airline industry – Southwest Airlines using Facebook Live during a PR crisis while Delta missed out.)
Facebook Live Tip for Better Public Relations | Crisis Management

After the crisis is over

  • Revisit quarterly – assess crises in your industry and how you would respond.
  • Maintain your relationships with media and public matter after every crisis.
  • Keep up major announcements in Social Media channels, and use those as an opportunity for continued live Q&A’s.

Empathy is essential for PR in our “Social Age.”

“PR comes down to solving problems quickly and to doing whatever it takes to get the job done.” Brad attests. Today, that requires not just a sales mentality but a truly social mentality. PR does have an empathy problem, but it’s not necessarily in its content as much as its conversations. PR needs to take a cue from what’s been successful in Social – more of a focus on engagement and the community side, and setting aside personal time for human-to-human relationships that will ultimately convert.

Want more great info and tips on PR, Social and Crisis Management?

Check out my Linked Inmate, Candace Carter, for her article “Brad Grantham: The Expert of Media and Public Relations – Triangle Marketing Club. ”Also, check out my audio interview below with Brad, post-production courtesy of producer Scott Donnell with Run and Drum Media.

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