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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?
In the wake of their unequivocal electoral defeat in November, the GOP party has been doing some chaotic soul-searching to figure out what went wrong, and how they can get back in the White House.
Well, it appears the brighter Republican minds have determined that they had a “messaging” problem in the election, rather than any demographic or policy dissonance between the American electorate and the Republican platform. More specifically, some argued it was who delivers the message and how it’s delivered that matters most; the underlying GOP messages themselves retain their probity and relevance. To use the words of one attendant at the RNC debrief: “we don’t need a new pair of shoes, we just need to shine our shoes.” More recently, following the inauguration of President Obama, Paul Ryan and other GOP leaders reaffirmed this assessment, saying their party needed to change the way it communicates, not its ideas, to win back the White House.
As a communication professional, I would be the last person to deny that language and messaging can make a difference in public perception, attitudes and behavior. And I support the theory that the GOP election campaign was littered with examples of messaging (scripted and unintentional) that influenced the polls and ultimately fueled their electoral defeat. But the GOP post-mortem analysis seems far too simplistic and self-serving. In fact, it reflects a particular obsession in politics with adjusting words and labels to be more palatable and resonant – packaging which often comes with limited connection to, or impact on, the underlying policy reality. This game of focus-group window-dressing and euphemisms has become so common and predictable in Washington it’s something of a bad cliché. “Hey, we need a user-friendly label for this new tax law that plays well in the middle-class….”
In PR we often run into clients or prospects that ask us to “message” them out of a crisis or bad reputation. And just as often I tell them that communication alone can’t fix a bad decision or policy. But they still try.
I’ll leave it to others to determine whether American voters really buy into the GOP platform – the actual policies, values and laws that they promote and implement. But I would argue the Republican messages were only one part of a broader construct that shaped their public profile – which includes their actions and ideas, not just their words. And though brands and labels do matter, they can’t exist (or be changed) in a vacuum. Messaging without supporting evidence and ongoing corroboration – particular in a political context – is little more than dubious propaganda. I also believe that most American consumers/voters are smarter than political leaders (and their armies of consultants and lobbyists) give them credit for, and will see through the most blatant messaging overhauls.
As luck would have it, I’ve been reading the results of Edelman’s excellent annual survey on trust. The survey suggests that trust of leaders and organizations is critical to influencing audience opinions and behavior (whether it be purchase, engagement or advocacy.) I think most of us would agree with that basic premise. But the study further argues that to build and sustain trust companies/leaders must focus on five key areas:
- Stakeholders want to see ENGAGEMENT behaviors like frequent, transparent communications and obvious care for employees and customers. There’s great faith built on the back of dialogue and interaction.
- They expect clear exhibition of INTEGRITY of business practices and responsible actions about issues. Again, transparency is key, since it’s inadvisable to go around bragging how high your integrity is.
- Quality PRODUCTS AND SERVICES seem like cost-of-entry, but this is a powerful way to build trust, especially with your innovation in evidence.
- Once upon a time, brands could truly differentiate themselves by addressing a greater PURPOSE than mere profit and valuation results. Purpose initiatives are more powerful than ever for bonding and setting oneself apart… but now it’s expected, if not demanded, that businesses work to protect the environment, address societal needs and impact their community.
- The fundamentals of the enterprise – OPERATIONS – are an important basis for trust; these include having highly regarded leadership, ranking among top companies and posting strong financial returns. And while you’re not likely to generate great increases in trust with these, if you fail, trust will plummet, and you’ll have much bigger issues to address.
I recognize the Edelman study focuses on companies and executives, rather than politicians or political parties. (On a side note, the survey shows that government lags business, media and NGOs in trust ratings, with the gap between government and business growing.) But I think the findings are quite relevant to this issue. It suggests that some of the old chestnuts of PR like “walk the talk” and “show me don’t just tell me” are still valid. In order to drive and sustain tangible changes in public attitudes and behavior, words (spoken or written) aren’t enough. It’s time politicians and executives commit to a more mature, comprehensive approach – where their actions, ideas and messages are real and aligned – to build credibility and support. I’ll be watching with interest how the GOP does with its “words first” approach.