Part One: Overview
How does psychology influence PR? How does trust, persuasion, and other aspects of behavioral psychology influence the way your organization communicates with the media, consumers, industry partners and stakeholders?
At Epic, we work with a Ph.D. to identify the psychological aspect of a PR campaign. His psychological research and expertise, coupled with our knowledge of PR and marketing strategies, have allowed us to identify the top psychological effects in PR and communications.
In this paper, we’ve outlined some of the most important psychological effects at play. This includes thinking traps (mental errors that hinder our ability to make decisions) as well as cognitive effects that influence attitudes and behavior. Thinking traps reduce our ability to make big decisions and to think objectively.
Below, we’ve broken down the traps and effects that have the most impact on day-to-day communications, and provided straightforward solutions for recognizing and overcoming the most common obstacles.
Part Two: Thinking traps and biases
People communicate in all types of different ways. However there are a few thinking traps that are universally prevalent. Whether it be online or off, certain factors have a negative impact on the way we make judgments, interpret ideas, and behave. This section will address:
- The availability bias, which describes how consumers make judgments about an issue or a brand;
- Thinking styles, which impact how people interpret messages;
- The E-go, which dictates how our personality traits manifest online;
- Problem-framing, or how to position things positively or negatively; and
- Groupthink, a phenomenon that hinders innovation and creativity
The Availability Bias: The tendency to rely on easily available memories to make judgments. Typically this goes wrong when we use available memories to make judgments about probabilities. Many people, for instance, guess that you are more likely to be killed or injured in a plane crash than in a car accident. In reality the opposite is true. However, because plane crashes are vivid and highly available memories with lots of disturbing imagery, we can mistakenly judge a plane wreck to be more likely than a car wreck. The same goes for positive events. People tend to overestimate their odds of winning the lottery, in large part due to photos or footage of elated people smiling and holding over-sized checks for huge amounts of money.
Consider how the 24/7 news cycle may strengthen this bias. Because we remember recent experiences or reports, the news has a significant effect on consumers’ decisions. For example, images of a cruise ship lying belly-up off the coast of Italy will make people far less likely to book a cruise, even if statistically speaking, cruises are generally very safe. Consumers have thus been primed by the news, increasing the accessibility of this information.
Availability biases can result in poor decision-making because they are based on single, potentially skewed, examples. Understanding how the brain works is important not only to be able to craft campaigns that support the way people think, but also to avoid the biases in our own brains as we make decisions and to think more objectively.
Thinking styles: Negative publicity can impact the way consumers feel about a brand, and influence their spending habits. However, not everyone responds to negative publicity in the same way. A study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology revealed that consumers react differently to negative publicity depending on what type of thinking pattern they exhibit.
An easy way to understand thinking styles is to examine the way people approach bad service in a restaurant. The analytic thinker would immediately label the restaurant as having bad service. A holistic thinker would consider the factors affecting the service – was the server’s section extremely busy? Was the kitchen backed up? Was he/she just having a bad day?
People’s reactions to negative publicity about a brand are heavily influenced by attribution, or where they place blame. When people stop to consider the circumstances, they are more likely to place blame on outside sources as opposed to internal factors.
Holistic thinkers are more open to considering all the circumstances, and they are less affected by negative publicity because they consider other factors at play.
Analytic thinkers tend to ignore contextual factors, and assign causality or blame with the individual. They’re more likely to be impacted by negative publicity.
These thinking styles don’t just apply to negative publicity – they’re also directly related to the way consumers view a brand and evaluate their experience. If an analytic thinker has a negative experience with your brand, they’ll be quicker to blame the company. Holistic thinkers are more likely to chalk up a negative experience to external factors.
Consider the impact this research has on crisis communications strategy. Tactics designed to influence consumers’ thinking styles could give you a strategic advantage in midst of a crisis. If consumers are encouraged to pay attention to contextual factors, like industry problems or third party suppliers, they’ll be less likely to assign blame solely with a brand, and less likely to form attitudes based off of negative publicity.
The E-Ego: Recent psychological research seems to indicate that the internet has a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde effect on consumer behavior.
Whether it’s obsessively checking e-mail, online bullying, or indulgent shopping sprees, the internet has spawned new forms of human behavior, according to Standford Univerisity Psychiatrist, Ellas Aboujaoude. The eerie reality of this phenomenon? Negative traits bolstered by online activity are hard to control.
Aboujaoude researches the human “E-Ego” which describes how today’s Web 2.0 culture bolsters negative character traits, like narcissism, childishness and grandiosity. These traits seem to take on new meaning in one’s digital life.
A few traits that gain new life online include:
Mean-spirited behavior. Online bullying does not just come from anonymity online. On the internet, there is no organized hierarchy to answer to answer to…
Childishness. This lack of consequences has activated regressive tendencies, Aboujaoude says. A disregard for punishment can result in impulsivity and irresponsibility.
Self Aggrandizement. The internet is so customizable – we listen to iTunes that only plays music we prefer, and aggregate our news based on our particular preferences. People become used to having their tastes perfectly matched, with minimal effort, which leads to a sense of entitlement, according to Aboujaode.
The antidote to a runaway “E-ego”? Self-awareness. Recognizing that we tend to let our ideas run wild online helps us curtail less than desirable behavior. Identifying our online patterns that leave us feeling bad is the first step to avoiding problems down the road.
Given the prevalence of internet phenomena like the E-Ego, it’s more important than ever to be prepared for a flash crisis. If negative online chatter is damaging your brand reputation on social media, take charge with a crisis response strategy.
Problem Framing: As much as we would like to think otherwise, we are vulnerable to certain thoughts when a question or problem is framed in either a positive or negative light. The question “how bad a leader do you think President Obama is?” or “how good a leader do you think President Obama is?” will receive very different results from the same respondents (adjusted for direction). The correct way to ask the question is “how would you assess President Obama’s performance?” and provide a scale.
How does problem framing factor into PR campaigns?
Researchers at the University of Missouri studied the reactions of news readers when exposed to a story about an organization’s crisis. One group read an “anger-frame” story that blamed the organization for the crisis. Another group read a “sadness-frame” story that focused on the victims and how they were hurt by the crisis. Those who read the “anger-frame” story read the news less closely and held more negative attitudes toward the company than those exposed to the “sadness-frame” version.
These findings reiterate the importance of crafting strategic, compelling messages during a crisis (and when you’re reaching out to the media with positive stories about your organization).
It’s never been more essential for organizations to share a story and to put on a human face during a crisis. Focusing on the human interest angle gives your organization a better chance of influencing “sadness-frame” news coverage instead of “anger-frame” coverage. “Sadness-framed,” coverage increases the potential that the public will be more forgiving.
Crises are always going to happen. Human nature and behavior are unpredictable, mistakes happen, and organizations are on the hook to respond. But this new data reinforces the fact that consumers react differently to news coverage of crises, and sheds light on the best ways to defend your organization to the media and your stakeholders.
Group Think: There is a tendency for groups to make bad decisions when certain group characteristics and the psychological state of group members are present, and when discussion processes are deficient. The engineering flaws that lead to the Challenger disaster as well as the conclusion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction were traced to Groupthink.
When is Groupthink more likely to happen? Groupthink is most prevalent when there is:
- A strong, persuasive group leader;
- A high-level of group cohesion; or
- Intense pressure from outside influences (like budgets, bosses, or members) to make a good decision.
Groupthink can stifle teamwork, undermine important decisions, and leave all but the most vocal team members dissatisfied. So how do teams avoid or remedy groupthink?
Be on the look out for signs of Groupthink, so you can nip it in the bud. It’s important to have a process in place for checking the assumptions behind important decisions, for validating the decision-making process, and for evaluating the risks. Allow each group member to contribute individually, minimizing the odds that persuasive, vocal group members dominate the decision making process.
Part Three: Triggers to Act
Below are two effects that impact how consumers react and behave both online and off. These factors describe how our behavior is dictated by comfort levels and feelings of security. People are much more likely to act if they’re not at risk of embarrassment or if their accountability levels are low.
De-Individuation: is a concept in social psychology that is generally thought of as the loosening of self-awareness in groups. When we are unidentifiable, we act in ways we otherwise would not. Cutting people off in traffic and road rage are blamed on this. On the internet, we are highly unidentifiable, or so we believe, so we are prompted to act in ways we would not face to face. Alter Egos, false personalities, or more innocuous role playing are ways we see this.
Social facilitation: means that we perform better in presence of others. Also known as the “mere presence effect”, we perform or perform better with others around us.
Part Four: Crisis Communications and ‘Fight or Flight’
There’s no question that people under extreme duress act in ways that dumbfound the public, surprise the media and seem generally out of character. It could be because the instincts at play during times of stress or crisis are closely tied to a less-evolved version of the human mind. This physiological reaction is referred to as the fight-or-flight response.
This response, hard-wired into our brains, is designed to protect us when we experience trauma or possible danger. Oftentimes when faced with an unexpected crisis, people either get defensive (fight) or bury their heads in the sand (flight).
However, during a communications crisis, leadership needs to be able to tap into a more evolved, strategic approach when dealing with complex issues. Organizations should be wary of how the natural urge to either fight or flee can negatively impact their objectivity, response strategy, and ultimately their bottom line.
In any crisis, time is always of the essence and when the media get involved, deadlines are usually tight. So how do you ensure that you not only weather the storm, but communicate your message effectively? Prepare ahead of time.
Studies indicate that organizations that prepare for PR crises in advance actually experience fewer issues and recover more quickly. Below you’ll find some quick tips to anticipate and prepare for potential PR issues before they happen:
Brainstorm every crisis your organization would most likely encounter. According to recent surveys, 49% of business decision-makers across the globe believe social media has made their company more vulnerable to a crisis and 79% expect to experience a crisis within the next year. However only half of them reported that their companies have a crisis communications plan. What issues have you faced in the past? What factors do you think could make your organization liable for a crisis? Start your planning based off of the issues that are likely to happen and that would have the highest impact on your organization.
Have a plan in place. Have your crisis response team assembled ahead of time. Involve public relations staff, executive spokespeople, board members (if need be), legal, etc. Too many cooks in the kitchen always complicate a crisis so have your team assembled before one strikes.
Practice how you will implement the plans. Consider investing in crisis scenario training, or creating a dark website ahead of time where your stakeholders can find FAQs, official statements, among other resources.
Develop messages ahead of time. While you can’t specifically predict what your crisis could look like, create basic, adaptable messages for social media, blogs, traditional media, and website that address common issues without fueling the fire. Make sure your proof points are quickly accessible, in case a reporter asks you to back up or prove any of your assertions.
Bottom line? Crises are always stressful, but preparing ahead of time will help reduce that panicky feeling. People under emotional stress oftentimes make devastatingly bad decisions, which is why it’s essential to anticipate crises before they happen.
Part Five: Conclusion
There are psychological factors at play in all aspects of PR and communications.
From message development, to media relations, to correcting misperceptions and communicating during a crisis, it’s essential to take human nature in account when developing PR and marketing campaigns. If you were to ask us for the secret of effective public relations, we’d have to say people skills. What really matters is that we understand how to target, talk to, persuade, motivate and ultimately win over…people.