Compassion: The (not so) secret ingredient to effective communications

Today's blog is posted by Jerry Johnson, executive vice president at Brodeur Partners.

What is compassion and why is it so popular?
You noticed it during crisis and most recently during the tragedy that was Hurricane Sandy. We hear stories, see pictures, watch videos of those in distress and we feel for them. In some cases, we actually do something for them!
Put that in the long list of recent disasters –from Haiti to Katrina to 9/11. We see, we hear, and we are drawn into action because we feel compassion for another.
But if you look closely you will see “compassion” playing out in almost every form of effective communication.  Sometimes, like in the case of emergencies, it is blatant. Other times the tug on the compassion thread can be ever so subtle.
The recent presidential campaign is but one example. Who cares more about all those “job creators”? Democrats? Republicans?
Do you pity the poor small business because it is burdened with regulation gone amok? Or do you have compassion on them because they are just looking for the same low interest loan to ride out the current economic downturn that the big banks get?
Or what about young people? Who cares for them? Are you sad for the young because they’ve been saddled with debt by profligate government waste? Or are you sad for them because instead of investing in education we’re sending all the tax breaks to wealthy businesses that would just as soon hire in Mombai, India, as they would in Mobile, Alabama?
In either case both campaigns are vying for the same thing: your compassion.
We like to dress up in compassion
In our new study, we asked people to review a list and assign labels to themselves. On that list were many admirable qualities some of which have defined American culture and history: idealistic, leader, ambitious, risk-taker, optimistic. There were ten in all. But from that list the label that people thought most applied to them by far was “compassionate.” Indeed, over two-thirds of Americans felt that this label not only applied to them but applied strongly applied to them.
Does this mean that these people are kind-hearted and caring? Not really. Rather it means that compassion is something that they like to associate themselves with. That is, compassion is something that they either think they are or would like to be.
Why are we so fixated with compassion and being compassionate? This question has long bedeviled the academy, from psychologists to neuroscientists. Compassion is a curious thing because it does not fit neatly into the prevailing paradigms of current evolutionary theory (survival of the fittest) or economic theory (pursuit of self-interest). A good testament to how hard compassion is to reconcile with the latter was President George Bush’s catchy notion of  “compassionate conservatism.”
What is compassion and why do people want to associate themselves with it? For people of faith that answer draws back to their worldview of the divine and the inherent sanctity of life. Virtually every religious faith has a version of the “golden rule”.
But recently there has been a flurry of efforts by secular thinkers to explain compassion in an evolutionary sense, including theories by Sam Harris (“The Moral Landscape”) and Jonathan Haidt (“The Righteous Mind”). Their explanations suggest that compassion is indeed a “survival” skill not just for individuals but more importantly for communities, societies and nations. Within a group, compassion makes that group stronger.
Whatever side you may come down on, what is clear is that compassion is a driving force in how with think, believe, support, and attach ourselves to individuals, ideas, and organizations.
Some advice to marketers
We typically associate communications campaigns that pull on the thread of compassion with highlighting people at risk – preferably the innocent (a.k.a. Christian Children’s Fund, St. Jude’s Hospital).
But if you look very closely, you’ll find product purveyors embedding the idea of compassion in all sorts of messages.

  • Our products are “kinder” to the environment.
  • Buy these diapers because they are gentler to your baby.
  • If you care for your family’s safety, you’ll buy this car.
  • If you care about your family’s education, you’ll buy this technology.

If you really love your cat, you’ll buy our cat food.
So our advice to marketers: follow the compassion.
Unless you are marketing to sociopaths, compassion has to be a critical element of any brand, marketing and sales strategy. Identify how it is that what you do helps others. And then make it simple, easy and fun to bring other people along for that ride.
And don’t forget that genuine external communications begins from within your organization. That is, don’t forget to practice internally the compassion that you encourage externally.
Because everyone wants to think they are compassionate. We just need to help them get there.

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