Empathy is Key to Effectively Working with the Media

Jessica Merritt

Skilled external affairs professionals are equal parts communication experts, trend analysts and matchmakers. We work in-house and with clients to craft messaging, identify how topics fit into broader local, regional and international conversations, and find the best placements for our stories. And all of this happens while constantly adjusting to an ever-changing media landscape that is influenced by the 24-hour news cycle and emerging technologies.    

This is not easy work, and throughout my career, I have observed the personality traits that make someone excel in the industry. The best in the business are voracious media consumers, both on and off the job. They are risk-averse, but still have an experimental mindset. And most importantly, they lead with empathy. Perhaps considered a “soft skill” by some, there is great power in empathy. With it, you can understand the needs of others and be acutely aware of what inspires them, allowing you to find throughlines and solutions to your respective ambitions.

Jessica Merritt is director of Communications for LAX Development Projects, the largest public works program in the history of Los Angeles. She specializes in architecture, culture and aviation external affairs – and is passionate about promoting the value and impact of design through the stories and visions behind projects.

Empathy, compassion and authenticity are not just buzzwords that came out of pandemic culture-building retreats. They are real leadership styles that belong in the workplace because they yield results. I learned this while working for arts nonprofits when the effects of the late 2000s Recession were still being felt; and now, almost a decade and a half later, practicing empathy is non-negotiable. 

In my role as the director of Communications for LAX Development Projects, I help promote the stories and visions behind Los Angeles International Airport’s $30 billion Capital Improvement Program, one of the largest and most complex airport transformations in the world. LAX is owned and operated by Los Angeles World Airports, a proprietary, revenue-generating department of the city of Los Angeles. This makes me a public servant who works to bring value to LA and its taxpayers.

With an extensive list of collaborators required to make city architecture and infrastructure initiatives a success, fostering team alliances must be done thoughtfully and with intention. Empathy allows for a better understanding of the driving forces behind each partner’s objectives and helps define collective wins. So when a marketing and communications strategy takes shape, it is simple to arrive at a shared vision that all participants embrace because their individual needs have been acknowledged and accounted for from the start. And when differences of opinion arise, empathy lets the team get back on track by cultivating active listening and creative problem-solving.    

Once shared buy-in is established among an internal project team, a critical next step is thinking empathically about the media outlets, editors and journalists who are equal partners in this work. What is their mission? What types of stories do they tell and how does your message aid in their work? If you find yourself struggling to identify a common purpose, the media target you have identified is not the right one. Alternatively, when you do find a complementary fit, members of the media appreciate that you took the time to understand the ethos of their work and how you can support it. Like you, these folks also have challenging jobs, often with non-traditional hours, tight deadlines and limited support staff. Make both of your lives easier by thinking through the needs of their publication and their audience, and detail what you are offering with clarity and warmness—you are in this together, after all.  

If you leave a good impression, they will likely return the favor because when you bring value and respect, you also build trust; and members of the media take notice. Editors and journalists will be more likely to open your emails, take your calls and even reach out to you with their ideas for stories. 

As external affairs teams and their partners prepare for a successful year ahead, I hope they will consider the importance of empathy and how it can help them achieve the media relationships and coverage they seek. 

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