As the COVID-19 pandemic gained intensity, this summer saw a mass unraveling of college student jobs and internships. Students across the globe scrambled to find last minute sources of experience and money. Ten Boston University College of Communication (COM) students, two COM alumnae, and a Northeastern University student, were among those whose summer plans were abruptly derailed. However, they were still determined to gain a career-oriented experience.
Seeing valuable public relations opportunities in the face of a worldwide health and economic crisis, these 13 aspiring PR professionals came together in August to form empath worldwide, the first pro bono communications firm to emerge from a global pandemic.
Empath, as indicated by its name, was founded on the idea that authentic communication is inherently grounded in empathy. This principle was first highlighted to executive director Maya Malekian (COM ’20) by BCW president Jim Joseph at a webinar for PR Council’s Agency Ready Certificate Program in June. She found a partner in COM friend Geneve Lau, now co-executive director with Malekian, soon after.
But why go pro bono, especially when public relations has proved an increasingly valuable corporate asset?
“During a time like the COVID-19 pandemic, small businesses and nonprofits have had to scale back and are struggling just to stay afloat,” says Lau. “However, it is undeniable that the role these small businesses play is amplified during a time of great civil unrest and people in communities are searching for ways to stay more connected virtually.”
Given this heightened importance of small businesses’ role in community solidarity, empath offers its services free of charge. The firm’s slogan, “We overcame, so that you can overcome,” embodies its core mission of counseling brands through pandemic-related challenges in order to foster community support and togetherness. In fact, empath’s name itself further embraces this idea, as it is an acronym for engagement, mobility, passion, adaptability, tenacity, and honesty, all concepts that contribute to authentic communications in a time when the public needs brand honesty and brands need public loyalty.
Empath currently serves 14 clients, including nonprofits, an Indonesia-based health juice joint, a beauty salon, and a career counselling firm.
The team built its client base by “reach[ing] out through our immediate networks to people that we had either worked with previously or thought would be a good fit for working with empath,” says Lau. “Through word of mouth from our creatives or the current clients […] people have reached out to us asking to work with us as a client when we accept new clients again around November/December.”
Empath provides its current and potential clients with an extensive menu of services. Among those offered include media relations, social media strategy and management, virtual and, when the time comes, in-person event planning, branding strategy, business voice development, crisis communications, and networking opportunities for clients within similar sectors. .
With services this extensive, one might wonder how these activities are funded at the pro bono firm.
“Fortunately, we haven’t needed to fund ourselves as an agency. We have gotten by using free versions of things, or finding alternatives,” Lau says. “Additionally, our clients pay for any incurring costs of the services we provide, i.e. if we were doing a website rebranding, they would pay for the Wix or Squarespace site.”
The students’ pro bono PR brainchild has gained recognition from COM faculty leadership, the broader BU community, PRWeek, and the PR Nation podcast. But to the team, it’s more than just publicity.
“Others are engaging in conversation with us about where the future of communications is headed,” says Lau. “During a time like now, action and awareness is crucial in ensuring that we are authentic in our field, and I think empath hits the nail on the head in spearheading those conversations.”
Despite empath’s success, the team does not believe it is a long-term replacement for a full-time job. Senior students on the team are still preparing themselves to enter into a communications job market that has been slow to recover and is still mostly working from home. Instead, empath is simply a collective into which communicators can enter to make a difference in their communities until some sense of normalcy is restored.
Caroline Floam, Staff Writer
Born and raised in a suburb of Washington, D.C., Caroline Floam is a third-year student studying Public Relations and Political Science, with an eye towards law school and the government relations field. Caroline has combined her communications skills and political knowledge as a media relations intern at the American Enterprise Institute and director of communications for the Boston Political Review. In her free time, she enjoys playing tennis, traveling, and eating avocados. She is a staff writer for the 2020-2021 academic year.