The Power of Influence & Persuasion

We all have opinions about the things we see, read, and hear in our daily lives. These opinions and perceptions are influenced by a combination of factors: belief systems, morals, values, upbringing, attitudes, intellectual judgement, and emotional sentiment. Like many things in life, opinions aren’t static; they continue to evolve as we accumulate more information and learn.

Long-held opinions about a person, issue, or topic can be turned on a dime by a new piece of information or argument. Sometimes it takes more proof and persuasive reasoning for it to sway, especially if there is sentiment involved. In some instances the opinion changes positively, others not.

When opinion changes

For many years, doping rumours swirled around Lance Armstrong. I didn’t want to believe it. It couldn’t be true. I idolized him as a Cycling God who overcame illness and adversity to achieve a record 7 consecutive Tour de France wins. Eventually, the proof was just too irrefutable, followed by his admission. I was extremely disappointed and my opinion of him changed dramatically. Naturally, I was dismayed to learn that he was guilty of doping, but what bothered me more was the length of time he spent denying and laying blame elsewhere combined with the meager apology once he came clean. He didn’t seem contrite at all. I might have forgiven him his sins if he had come clean years ago and showed true remorse.

From this example I learned, that sometimes, it’s not what someone does that changes your opinion, but rather, how they handle themselves afterwards.

Influence and persuasion come in many forms. We can be influenced by those closest to us, by leaders in society, and by the media. These influences often not only change our opinions, but also our behaviour in the decisions we make.

super_size_me_ver2

Source: IMDb.com

When behaviour changes

Morgan Spurlock‘s 2004 documentary “Super Size Me“, where he examines the fast food industry by subjecting himself to a month long diet of solely McDonald’s food, blew me away. It was surprising, shocking, and at times, just plain disgusting. I had been a fan of McDonalds when I was a kid (who wasn’t?), but after watching the movie and seeing the effect it had on his health, I couldn’t bear the thought of walking into a McDonald’s and ordering a meal. Nine  years later, I still won’t eat their hamburgers and fries. That movie changed my behaviour.

Influence and persuasion may not always change your behavior and actions, it might simply open your eyes to a different way of thinking about an issue.

When thoughts change

I used to think the sport of hunting was barbaric and senseless, until I dated a hunter. He explained to me that hunting was a regulated activity where you were required to complete a hunter education course and firearm safety training. There were also conservation limits on what and where you could hunt. And most importantly, in my eyes, was the fact that many hunters consume what they hunt; it isn’t just a kill sport. My opinion of hunting hasn’t 100% changed, but my eyes have been opened to another way of thinking about it.

As we walk through life, it’s important to take a moment to reflect on where our perceptions and opinions originate, be conscious of the influences that may change them, and be open to new ways of thinking. In doing so, we can make better informed decisions.

As a PR professional, it’s equally important to understand the underlying factors that form and shift public opinion, for those opinions and perceptions will have an impact on your company or brand.

The Knowledge Tree Grows

thoughts-big

Source: Sylvie van Hulle

My Public Relations Fundamentals class has come to an end today. It culminated with a strategic plan presentation to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Our class was divided into 5 “agencies” that had to pitch their ideas to representatives of the Museum. It was an exciting opportunity within the class framework to present a real life scenario to an organization; that doesn’t happen very often. It was even more exciting to see all the creative ideas generated from the groups. Inspiring.

Working on this project and being in this class has taught me some very important lessons that I will carry forward into my professional career.

Hit the pavement

When researching, the internet and libraries are typically important, reliable, and let’s face it, somewhat easy resources of information. What happens if the information you find is several years old? It may no longer be relevant to your situation. It’s crucial that you find other ways to get the information you are looking for. That may mean getting out on the streets, talking to people to learn about public opinion that is current. Surveys, if you ask the proper questions, can provide a wealth of information quickly. When working on our project, I was surprised to see how many people were willing to help us out in our research. Don’t be afraid to get out there and ASK.

Let go of the ego

Working in groups on a project, brainstorming together to come up with, what you hope will be, the BEST IDEA EVER, can be challenging. Not all your ideas will be considered viable and that’s ok – the end goal is to come up with what’s best for the situation. Think it ends there? Not necessarily. Just when you think your group has come up with the perfect plan, you might get feedback from your client or your boss (in our case, instructor) that it’s not suitable. It doesn’t have the right tone, the right fit, the right message, the right whatever – it’s just not quite right.  So, it’s back to the drawing board. Don’t get discouraged, don’t take it personally. It may hurt for a moment, but it can spur you on to achieving something even greater.

Details, Details, Details

Developing a strategic plan is not just about having a great tactic or a great key message or using the right media platforms. It’s about making sure all the elements in your plan fit tightly together. It’s like putting together a puzzle. You might have all the pieces you need: research analysis, objectives, a target audience, a strategy, key messages, tactics, a budget, a timetable, and evaluation metrics. BUT… Do they fit together? Do they make sense? Is your key message suitable for your audience? Does your budget reflect your plan? Will your tactics help you achieve your strategy? Will your evaluation metrics measure the success of your objectives? And so on. Just like putting together a puzzle, sometimes when you are too close or focused too much on one part,  it’s hard to see the whole picture. It’s important to take a step back and look at the overall work. Ask someone else to review it with fresh eyes if you want a second opinion. It’s always good to do a final edit (or two) to ensure you’ve considered all the details that will make your plan cohesive

Play nicely with others

My final key takeaway from this class is the importance of being a team player. We were taught this at a young age when our parents told us to play nicely with others, and yet as adults, it doesn’t always happen when working in groups. It never fails to surprise me. Thankfully, I was working with a great group of women who were very supportive. We didn’t always agree on ideas, but we were always respectful. Other groups didn’t fare so well. In life, we can’t always work alone, in fact that rarely happens. We need other people to get stuff done. In order to work well with others, RESPECT is required. Be respectful of people’s feelings, ideas, working styles, communication styles, time, and deadlines. Appreciate your differences. Everyone brings a different skill set to the table and it’s important to recognize and harness it. Those differences make your team richer.

One last thought. LAUGH. Always try to have fun.

Have a crazy idea? Go for it!

photo courtesy of The Forks

photo courtesy of The Forks

Have you ever had an idea for a public relations campaign where everyone around you was saying: “You’re nuts, it won’t work”? Well, your crazy idea might just turn out to be a pivotal moment for your company, product, or brand.

Recently over coffee, I had the pleasure of speaking with my friend Clare MacKay, Vice President of Communications and Marketing for The Forks North Portage, who shared with me her crazy idea for a public relations campaign that, as she says, “changed people’s perception of winter in Winnipeg”.

Many people consider The Forks to be a great summer destination because of  the riverwalk, shops, restaurants, and attractions. How do you make this hip summer place the hot spot to visit in the dead cold of winter? Even more challenging, how do you do it on a shoestring budget?

Answer: Get listed in the Guinness Book of World Records.

photo courtesy of The Forks

photo courtesy of The Forks

One day, it dawned on Clare that they could apply to have The Forks river skating trail declared the longest ice skating trail in the world. She recognized that this would be an effective PR tool to “maximize exposure of the trail while spending very little money”. In fact, the total cost to get the trail assessed and approved was $6000.

Normally, the Guinness World Record process, from start to finish, can take several months to a year. With hard work, Clare and her team were able to fast track it so they could have a media event surrounding the measurement of the trail and then three weeks later hold a press conference surrounding the certification of the record in early 2008.

The city of Ottawa, a long-time rival claiming to have the largest ice skating trail, soon got wind of this certification resulting in national exposure by many media outlets. In addition to local media, the campaign has been featured in the Ottawa Citizen, the Toronto Sun, Maclean’s, Canadian Living, Air Canada’s EnRoute, and WestJet’s Up!.

Every winter since 2008, The Forks continues to get media attention due to the rivalry with Ottawa’s Rideau Canal. The total earned media from all this is estimated at $1.1 million. The Forks is now a cool place to go in the winter, with many people taking pride in being able to say they skated the whole 8.54 km trail. In 2012, 45,000 pairs of skates were rented at The Forks.

Not bad for a crazy idea and a small budget.

As a soon-to-graduate PR student, I asked Clare for her top tips in approaching campaigns. These are her recommendations:

  1. Try everything once.
  2. Plan, but be flexible and adaptable to changes.
  3. Learn how to pitch to the sponsors who can help provide funding.
  4. Use PR every step of the way during a campaign. Don’t wait until the end to celebrate and promote what you achieve.
  5. The idea doesn’t have to be big to be good.

After listening to her story, I have one of my own to add: Don’t be afraid to think outside the box.

Thanks for sharing your knowledge and inspiring me, Clare.

Don’t forget the “R” in the RACE to develop your campaign

I think it’s human nature to want to get to where you’re going in a hurry, especially if you are excited about the end result. This couldn’t be more evident the other day in class when, in groups, we were discussing our public relations campaign assignment. In our enthusiasm for the project, we naturally jumped to discussing ideas for tactics in how we would carry out the campaign.

Whoa! Back up the bus.

In our race to get to the finish line (or at least to the good stuff), we forgot the most important first step in the RACE formula: RESEARCH. Of course it’s fun to start thinking of tactics because that’s where your creativity can shine, but jumping to tactics is like a doctor prescribing medication without examining the patient first. If you want your campaign to be successful, you need to understand the situation. In order to do that, you need to start with research.

Research will provide insight to what’s happening at that particular point in time: what people think and feel about the issue, what challenges you face, and what else is happening in the environment that may affect your campaign. Research will help you identify your audience, illuminate your strengths and weaknesses, and highlight your opportunities and threats. By examining what was done in the past, you can determine what wasn’t successful and make improvements. Research guides the development of your objectives, strategies, and tactics. Essentially, research provides the foundation for everything that comes after. It may be time consuming and not very exciting (unless you are a research/analytical type of person), but research is crucial to your campaign’s success.

photo: Forbes.com

photo: Forbes.com

I’m sure there are times when you see a campaign and wonder: “What were they thinking?” Well, a lot of people were doing just that when American Apparel launched their Hurricane Sandy Sale in 2012. The sale was targeted by email to customers in the affected states notifying them of the event with the caption: “In case you’re bored during the storm.” Bored? Really? It didn’t take long for the backlash to start with people tweeting about the company’s insensitivity and swearing to boycott the stores. The company failed to take a pulse on public opinion before coming up with their promotion. This is just one example of when failing to do research can not only hinder your campaign, but also harm your reputation.

A poorly planned campaign can affect a company under normal, everyday circumstances. What happens when a company is in the midst of a public relations crisis with their reputation already under fire? Getting it right has never been more important.

bp

photo: Forbes.com

In 2010 British Petroleum (BP) was under fire after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. How they handled the situation is a defining  example of what not to do. It all started with CEO Tony Hayward’s regrettable statement to the press where he makes the tragedy all about him: “We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused their lives. There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.”[i] Apparently, this is not his only public gaffe.

In the 4 months following the spill, the company spent over $93 million dollars in local and national TV, radio, and newspaper advertising. This amount is 3 times the budget spent during the same time period the previous year. The company claimed the advertising was to inform the public about the clean-up efforts; however many critics viewed the ads simply as a means for the company to polish its image. Over $93 million spent on ads while affected business owners, fisherman, and others struggled for their livelihood due to the damage caused by the spill. I’m sure the ads were a great comfort to them. The money could have been better spent on the clean-up effort and supporting those affected.

Among the numerous mistakes the company made, they chose the wrong person to be their spokesperson and they failed to find out what the public needed from them in order to regain trust. Research could have helped prevent the mistakes they made. Of course, this is simply looking at the issue from the perspective of the public relations campaign at that particular point in time. The company, as later uncovered, was plagued with many other ethical issues as well. That topic would require its own blog post.

As tempting as it may be to jump to the tactics, ensure the necessary research is done first to get your campaign off to a good start.