Skilled public relations, advertising and marketing practitioners know by heart how essential it is to frame an organization’s message to its target audience. A public isn’t going to actively listen unless a message tugs at some point of interest for them; something that affects or intrigues them one way or another. Communications experts put themselves in the shoes of their target audience members and ask, “Why should they care?”
While this is a standard step in any communications strategy, the process can definitely go further. I challenge public relations practitioners to take the extra time to engage in empathy with their audiences. By fully understanding the demographic details of a target audience, including what they want from organizations in which capacities, one can expand his or her message to better engage publics.
A case to examine is how presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, reached out to the Latino demographic in an attempt to connect with them by comparing herself to their “abuelas,” which means “grandmother” in Spanish (Luisi, 2015). Her public relations team must have assumed that by relating Clinton to the Latino family dynamic would essentially get her platform’s message across to that population. However, this strategy backfired because Clinton’s team did not conduct enough research to better predict how their target audience would react. Citing cultural notions to a group she does not belong to is widely interpreted as offensive. In fact, some labeled this half-hearted attempt to connect with a Latino audience as, “Hispandering,” a term used to describe the fake interest politicians often make in Hispanic issues for self-serving purposes (Meraji, 2015). Social media erupted with the hashtag, “#NotMyAbuela,” in response (Sanders, 2015). Audiences turned the platform strategy into an opportunity to challenge Clinton’s sincerity and knowledge about the Latino-American experience. Clinton comes from a much more privileged family upbringing than many Latino families, and thus the comparison felt more self-serving for Clinton’s political gain, rather than actually to represent Latinos. If her communications team had empathized with the societal and emotional triggers that Latino individuals may have on such a message, they likely would have reconsidered their tactics. It’s essential in any campaign that communicators fully understand their audiences’ perspectives, including their personal emotional responses.
The average American is bombarded by 3,000 advertisements a day (Kocina, 2006). Surrounded by so much noise, consumers are seeking an organization that they feel like they can trust. Brand loyalty can be established by a sense that an organization actually understands what a patron wants and needs. Focus groups and interviews are effective ways that public relations practitioners can research exactly what that might mean for their target audiences.