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As communication pros we’ve always had a tough challenge, but drafting and communicating a message these days is more difficult than ever. Beyond the long-standing requirements of clarity, relevance and credibility we now must address the emerging demands for trans-media content, real-time conversation (and adjustment) and targeted delivery across social platforms; all in a context of decreasing trust for leaders and corporations. It turns out that even if we satisfy all these best practices, we still face a major hurdle. Indeed, new research suggests that even the strongest factual messages may not be enough to change minds. Chalk it up to confirmation bias.
If you’ve ever wondered why even the strongest arguments don’t seem to resonate with a particular audience – even when supported with cogent evidence and presented by credible sources – this research by IPR has the explanation. In a recent study IPR author Christopher Graves found that when people are shown evidence they may be wrong, they not only discount that evidence, they become even more extreme in their original belief. […] While it may not have been particularly surprising that people cling to their beliefs to the degree that they filter out any evidence that challenges their beliefs, an unexpected finding of the experiment was a backfire. The study goes into interesting details about the physiology and neuroscience behind this phenomenon. One particularly interesting finding suggests the messenger of information is critical, since outsiders will automatically elicit skepticism: To avoid being rejected from the get-go, you must choose representatives with whom each group feels comfortable, messengers or narrators who send the proper cues that identify them as in-group members.
Though I’ve long known people initially discount information that doesn’t suit their particular viewpoint or narrative, I was surprised by the lack of importance (or power) that facts have if they go against the prevailing views of the target audience. Furthermore, it appears the more you try the wrong approach, the more you polarize the audience and diminish the resonance of your argument. I suppose this information bias helps explain how seemingly smart, curious individuals can have such different opinions on major public issues (notably climate change) and are not swayed by evidentiary facts that contradict their position.
So what are PR pros to do with this information? I suppose the first decision is whether to throw in the towel and abandon probity and factual evidence as tenets of content. After all, if the facts don’t really make a difference with many people, why even bother? Let’s just jump on the hype bandwagon and sell snake-oil. Assuming we want to maintain our ethical stance and remain committed to telling the truth – in whatever format and channel is most effective – there is a potential path to success.
The IPR research itself suggests that the answer to overcoming strong confirmation bias can be overcome with the following strategy:
- Affirm/recognize the audience’s core values
- Argue the position through an emotional narrative
- Choose an in-house messenger to reinforce, if not carry your message
It’s interesting to note that this roadmap in many ways echoes the increasing focus on influentials and storytelling in successful social media programs. It also suggests that it’s easier to change minds through conversation (and intellectual compromise) than just turning up the volume or frequency of your message.
I look forward to additional findings and guidance from this IPR study. For now, the lesson is that using facts and logic to convince a skeptical audience – no matter the underlying value of the evidence – will not only fail without the right strategy, but will likely backfire and permanently discredit your argument. Another good reminder to think before we act.
In recent weeks I’ve witnessed several instances of public figures using talking points, or planned messages, in ways that should make every PR professional cringe.
Perhaps the most visible example was the brouhaha surrounding Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, when Governor Pence appeared on talk shows to defend the proposed legislation – which was widely criticized for allowing, perhaps even encouraging, discrimination against the LGBT community. In one widely publicized interview, Pence methodically repeated his key talking points – including the widely debunked argument the Indiana RFRA was identical to a law passed by other states – even as the host provided detailed evidence to the contrary. To make matters worse, Pence repeatedly avoided answering a direct question about whether the law allowed discrimination against LGBT consumers, reverting back to stock messages that were not relevant. By most assessments, Pence did not fare well in the interview, yet his discredited talking points lived on even as the legislation was amended (despite Pence’s earlier claims to the contrary) to reflect the widespread criticism.
In fairness, this stubborn adherence to irrelevant or misleading talking points isn’t limited to one side of the political spectrum. Last week US Senator Bob Menendez was indicted on criminal charges of bribery and corruption. The surprise wasn’t that Menendez pleaded not guilty, but that in his remarks he defiantly pronounced his innocence and defended his actions with arguments (and messages) that strained credulity given the scope and detail of the accusations. Undoubtedly, we will hear his script repeatedly as we wait for the legal process to unfold.
Like many communication professionals, I believe there is great value in proactively planning speaking points to position your argument (or product or policy) in the best possible light. I’ve trained my share of leaders on this practice. But there are several critical requirements to ensure this is done effectively, meaning the messages are relevant (in some way relate to the question and circumstance), supported by proof points and perceived as credible, or at least plausible and appropriate. It’s also important the messages be adaptable and evolve to reflect their resonance, or lack thereof, with observers. Worse case scenario, the audience or interviewer could disagree with your position, but not call into question your bona fides or integrity.
Unfortunately, the practice of talking points has become pervasive and perverted in recent years. Now it’s common practice for politicians, for example, to align on a set of partisan messages and repeat them with numbing frequency, notwithstanding the occasion or even the question. In the worse cases, these talking points are often misleading, if not outright fabrications; more slogans or aspirational headlines than information. What used to be shared as opinion or suggestion is now peddled as fact. The thinking appears to be that if you repeat something often enough – even if it’s not accurate or relevant – people will start to believe it.
Maybe the most surprising aspect of this is that the speakers appear oblivious to the fact their statements do not pass the sniff test. Witness the recent announcement by Senator Ted Cruz he was running for President. Cruz’ stump speech (ironically headlined with the theme of truth) is littered with sweeping, provocative claims that have been widely debunked, and not just by the obvious suspects on the other side of the partisan divide. Yet, Cruz appears happy to continue repeating his punch lines, presumably content that his target audience (conservative Republicans) is quite happy to believe in his worldview. My issue here isn’t with Cruz’s arguments or politics, but that he appears totally unconcerned about the widespread, repeated questions about the veracity of his statements. What me worry?
Like other industry observers, I suspect this neo-propaganda model of talking points owes something to the most infamous examples of intentional misinformation: the tobacco industry’s decades-long denial of health hazards from smoking. Other industries – notably the oil and gas sector – have followed a similar model of incessant lobbying fueled by massive advertising and marketing, all scripted by carefully written narratives and slogans with a tenuous relationship to truth or public interest. Now politics seems to have fully embraced this campaign model, designed more to shape public policy and sway voters than to educate or foster dialogue.
The problem with this paradigm, I would argue, is that the cumulative impact of this disputed, polarized messaging is the eroding credibility and relevance of the process and the messages themselves. Does anybody really believe what the politicians are saying? Or does having evidence to back your messages even matter anymore? A number of recent surveys on low levels of trust for a wide range of sources – notably politicians, journalists and corporate leaders – suggests there is a serious credibility gap in public discourse.
The result of all this, I fear, is collateral damage for the reputation of the PR profession, already struggling with accusations of spin and ethical lapses. All communication pros should carefully consider their own actions in these situations. What are the values and principles that guide our counsel and behavior? I believe our profession needs to take a stronger stand with our clients or company leaders, and promote a more authentic, relevant and cogent messaging strategy that can stand up to objective scrutiny. In short, stand up for the truth.
I was pretty happy to read the dual press statements from Yahoo and Tumblr when they announced their partnership this week. I have to admit in recent months I’ve pretty well given up on press releases – a sterile, decaying art form that is seemingly impervious to innovation and improvement. It’s true that some companies have made their releases more social in recent years, even entertaining, but too often releases are formulaic, devoid of personality and cloaked in vague and trite legal jargon. In other words, they are usually boring, generic and lacking credibility.
In this sorry context come the above mentioned releases. First Yahoo. Right off the bat, you’ve got to give the Yahoo team kudos for featuring the elephant in the room right in their byline – we promise we won’t screw it up. Marisa Mayer’s comments about Tumblr and its CEO David Karp seem genuine and conversational – as if (lo and behold) the quote is actually real. She also acknowledges the obvious – that the two companies couldn’t be more different – but also makes a good case for how they can complement each other. A few other nice touches – the word awesome and an ironic exclamation point – help make the release not just credible, but worth reading. And though the release has some typical verbiage on opportunity and assets, the business case is presented in a way that makes sense.
The Tumblr statement is even more refreshing, and totally in keeping with the company’s smart, rebellious image. David Karp’s blog post is funny, sarcastic and ends with a disarming “F… yeah!” It’s also concise and hits the obvious concerns of his team right at the top. All this and not a legal term or ten-dollar word in sight.
Beyond the initial statements, both teams used their arsenal of social media platforms to get the word out and provide ongoing elaboration and commentary. In the process, they haven’t shied from some of the controversial aspects of the deal (notably Tumblr’s not so secret reputation as a hotbed of porn.)
The lesson here is not that companies need to make their press releases irreverent or informal, but they should remember their identity and their target audiences – which include employees and consumers, not just Wall Street heavies. In this case the tone of the statements seemed entirely appropriate. It helps that this transaction seems to fit with the strategy of the respective companies – Yahoo gets a new potential audience, a boost in buzz and some much-needed hip factor; while Tumblr keeps its independence while benefiting from the huge audience and finances of a large partner. Another point I’ve argued many times with peers and clients is that information that is important – notably in formal announcements like press releases that must be carefully crafted – doesn’t have to be serious or boring. Compelling content that is aligned with readers’ interests, lexicon and media habits is much more likely to be read and believed. Isn’t that the point of releases in the first place?
I wasn’t surprised at all by the results of the US presidential election. Despite Republican conspiracy theories about the polls, I believed most were an accurate reflection of the mood of the electorate – or as accurate as polling can be. And I expected a majority of Americans would gravitate to a moderate position on key issues, and be scared off by some of the extreme, simplistic positions promoted by Republican candidates. What did really surprise me, however, was that Romney and his ardent supporters on Fox News seemed genuinely shocked, even flabbergasted, that Obama had won – and decisively at that.
I suggest the main cause of this surprise was the insular, persistent echo chamber constructed by conservative media pundits, the powerful PACs and the Romney campaign that promoted its own narrative at any cost. As a detached observer (I’m Canadian and therefore cannot vote in U.S. elections) it struck me that the conservative media machine was doing a great job telling their own supporters what they wanted to hear, but in the process they built a parallel universe that filtered out or discounted information that didn’t fit their narrative. They appeared to lose touch with the concerns, doubts and opinions of many voters. Witness the histrionic focus on conspiracy theories around the Benghazi attack in the days prior to the vote while most of the country, rightly, seemed far more concerned about the Sandy disaster.
Perhaps more surprising is that the Romney team went along for the ride. In short, they guzzled their own delusional cool-aid. In the process of pushing their message – again and again – and listening primarily to their fans (and billionaire supporters) while avoiding critics, the Romney team seemed to lose the pulse of the broader electorate. They forgot that the essence of a productive communication process is a dialogue, where listening is a key ingredient in delivering a relevant and credible message.
I’ve seen this same insularity and hubris in corporate settings. Some CEOs forcefully promote and execute their agenda with little care or understanding for their employees’ concerns and questions. They pay limited attention to employee feedback, and rely more on informal sources – often senior staff reluctant to share bad news – which fosters an artificial decision-making cocoon that becomes detached from the reality on the front-lines. As a CEO, losing touch with your audience increases the chance your outreach and policies will be duds, and that your employees will ignore, or worse reject, the top-down dictums.
The lesson here for communication professionals is that it’s fine to have an agenda and narrative you want to promote – even a partisan one – but doing so without careful, constant consideration for your audience and a realistic, open perspective is a recipe for disaster. In this case, electoral disaster. Despite the propensity to rely increasingly on partisan hype – a wall-of-sound of repetitive, shrill advertising and commentary – all the wishing and punditry in the world can’t change the reality on the ground. It’s understandable the Romney team didn’t want to show their true hand, but they certainly should have known their realistic prospects, and spent more time listening to the voters rather than their own hype.
The U.S. election season the past few months has been notable for the vitriol, partisanship and disingenuous arguments featured in much of the conversation. In fact, it’s been a depressing showcase of the worst instincts of communication professionals, with decorum and credibility taking a back seat to carpet-bombing ads and scoring political points. But during the DNC a few weeks ago, Bill Clinton provided a memorable reminder that well-delivered and packaged information – and balanced arguments – can still pack a punch.
Clinton’s speech was widely lauded as the most cogent and straight-forward defense of Obama’s re-election platform to date – even better than Obama’s own keynote speech and numerous previous attempts to frame his case for another term. Using all of his considerable skills as an orator and politician, Clinton presented a clear and crisp argument for why Obama deserved a second term – or at least made the best case for it. Though the address was certainly partisan, it relied heavily on anecdote and evidence and avoided the worst excesses of the party campaigns.
The most interesting lesson for me here is that information – no matter how credible and relevant – is just not enough. In fact, the Obama team had been struggling for weeks to shape and share essentially the same content that was so effectively presented by Clinton. Indeed, the secret sauce of communication is the presentation, format and delivery of the core material, or messages. This may be a truism of PR but one that is often forgotten in the race to just get out the message. Clinton used essentially the same material as Obama, but explained and presented it in way that was more streamlined, resonant and repeatable than before.
Here’s a few specific tactics Clinton used that bear notice:
- The best speeches or presentations are about sharing information with people, not talking to them. Despite his keynote speech format, Clinton made me (and presumably other listeners) feel we could have been sitting with him in a far more intimate , informal setting.
- There’s no substitute for experience and credibility. Say what you want about Clinton’s failings as President, but he remains an incredibly smart policy wonk who has first-hand experience in many of the issues he discussed in his speech – notably welfare reform. That carried gravitas that simply isn’t shared by most other speakers (hello Paul Ryan.)
- Building on the last point, Clinton backed all of his arguments with evidence. One can argue with his data, views and conclusions, but he certainly backed his assertions with a solid explanation and relevant proof points.
- Clinton is famous – sometimes mocked – for his litany of mannerisms; the aw-chucks bite, folksy chuckle and wagging finger are just three of his famous repertoire. But these seemed heartfelt and appropriate, and were very effective in helping him to make a point, or add emotion and emphasis to his comments.
- Simplicity is a forgotten art in the overhyped world of politics. Many of Clinton’s key points were captured in punchy, repeatable phrases. Though not slogans per se, they are easily understood and repeatable.
- The best evidence is personal stories that capture the inherent issue, and proposed solution, in even the most esoteric policy arguments. Clinton used several of these effectively.
- And finally, Clinton’s speech was relevant and responsive – particularly in how he provided a point-by-point dissection, and rebuttal, of the most popular Republican criticisms. Unlike other speeches that seemed drafted in a vacuum, with no acknowledgement of media or political winds, Clinton made sure he addressed the questions many viewers would want answered.