People in the modern era are now totally dependent on social and traditional media outlets for information on nearly every topic. While this is a force that can be used for good, it has also given rise to significant problems like fake news, disinformation, and manipulation of public opinion.
The sad but honest truth is that the more developed and accessible the Internet becomes, the more its overall quality and authenticity decline. Automation, AI algorithms, big data and social media platforms have completely changed how we perceive and share information. In the digital age, it’s all too easy to use these channels to manipulate the scale, volume and accuracy of data and news.
For these reasons, Public Relations and Government Relations (PR and GR) specialists must have a wealth of knowledge and an array of corresponding tools to maneuver around fake news, attract public attention, and convey information accurately.
#1 Understanding Cognitive Dissonance
This is primarily a social psychology term, but understanding cognitive dissonance is one of the best skills PR specialists can have. It’s fundamental to knowing how and why people change their minds when receiving new information.
Cognitive dissonance refers to the discomfort people feel when they are exposed to information that challenges their pre-existing beliefs and, in turn, their previously stable worldview. Because people naturally want to return to comfort and consistency, they can struggle to change their minds if presented with information that doesn’t fit their existing perceptions.
Influencing target audiences to change their minds is undoubtedly the most crucial part of any PR job. New information that contradicts the audience’s worldview must be presented persuasively, which means PR professionals need a deep understanding of the audience they’re speaking to, along with a toolbox of techniques for encouraging them to think differently.
#2 Understanding Subconscious Associations
Successful marketing campaigns always include something recognizable, familiar, or memory-triggering. If PR professionals can market their information to tap into a person’s memories and subconscious associations, they’re more likely to create an emotional connection.
For instance, a study found that subjects were more likely to want to buy a mug when the advertisement depicted it with the handle facing right. Because the right hand is dominant for the majority of people, this image is connected to their subconscious memories of using mugs by grabbing them with their right hand.
We form these types of associations all the time. When someone says ‘Google’, we immediately think “search, information, answers”, and our minds have detailed memories of how we use the search engine. If I mention Microsoft, your mind automatically thinks, “Windows, software, computers”, and brings up recognizable images to accompany the word association. Understanding how to build subconscious associations is therefore a vital PR skill.
#3 Understanding Confirmation Bias
Confirmation bias is the human tendency to prefer or seek information that already confirms our existing beliefs. Our biases affect how we collect, perceive, interpret and recall information. This ties into cognitive dissonance, and the human need for a stable worldview.
Most people think their beliefs are rational, logical and objective. However, our entire worldview is often based on information that supports our pre-existing ideas, and we unconsciously filter out the information that challenges those beliefs.
Political elections are a prime example of this phenomenon. People decide they’re in favor of a particular candidate, and, when asked why, they readily list all the positive information they’ve gathered. If presented with unfavorable details, they’re prone to dismissing or downplaying it.
PR and GR specialists must understand the effects of confirmation bias, and use this as a tool to drive more effective communications.
#4 Using Captology
The term captology has been around since 1996, but we’re only recently using it as a PR concept. It involves the study of computers as a type of “persuasive technology.” The basic idea is that computers can influence people to change their attitudes and behaviors; that they are effectively behavioral conditioning tools. (Here’s a Venn diagram that explains the concept a bit more.)
The man who coined the term, Dr. B.J. Fogg, based his model on three criteria:
- Subject motivation
- Ability to perform a given task
At peak effectiveness, captology enables you to influence perceptions and choices without being heavy-handed. For example, Amazon has introduced the “1-click order” feature to facilitate “impulse buys.” Another example is the simple existence of social media notifications. We get small rushes of dopamine (the “happy chemical”) whenever we get messages or engagement, and this influences us to check our phones more often.
The more comprehensively PR professionals can understand the three elements of captology, the more easily they can automate the persuasion process and make it “invisible” to ordinary users.
#5 Using Framing and Decomposition
Both of these concepts involve how information is presented.
Framing is another tool that helps PR specialists influence how information is perceived. In a simple example, you can understand why consumers would prefer a disinfectant that says, “Kills 95% of germs” over the same product that says, “5% of germs survive.” It’s the same information, just presented in a more favorable light.
Decomposition, meanwhile, is a process that breaks down news into smaller, more digestible parts. Each part builds a link in a chain of actions that leads to a singular goal. For instance, if there is a political candidate who wants to leave a lasting impression, he or she might be featured in small primetime news segments, brief radio ads and on signage along the sides of the road. This gives people a consistent, small “dose” of the candidate, building familiarity and predisposing people to remember them when it’s time to vote.
So, if PR specialists want to create a specific image, they can use decomposition and framing to make a client memorable across multiple audience segments. When combined with framing, it’s easy to create a positive association with minimal effort.
#6 People Don’t Remember Information. They Remember Where to Find It.
We live in an information-rich society. However, having so much information to hand is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we have limitless resources that are instantly accessible; on the other, we have information overload and fake news.
This overabundance of information means that it’s up to PR specialists to figure out ways users can easily save and organize important information for quick access. Instagram allows users to create saved collections; Pinterest uses boards to categorize saved links; Facebook has a “saved for later” archive. Helping people find — not remember — good information is the key to success.
How to sort good information from bad
Everywhere we turn, digital media is pouring a constant stream of data into our lives. And while 93 percent of people are confident they can spot fake news, the reality is that at least 35 percent of those same individuals have unknowingly shared deceptive content.
Educated users can “reveal the truth” with simple tactics like:
- Checking a story for supporting research hyperlinks and expert sources
- Checking the byline to see who’s behind the story
- Checking the accompanying images to see if they’re legitimate or recycled from old news
Remember that disinformation is crafted to play on your emotions, and it often uses the tactics listed above. But you can sift through the noise to find out what’s real.
The job of PR and, in particular, GR specialists is to shift public perception of a person, company or idea. They can use all of the tools discussed above to accomplish their goal. This is why it’s so important for us to be attentive and thoughtful when we consume media.
It’s wise to analyze the information presented to us and not immediately believe everything we see, especially on social media and news outlets. How information is presented affects how we feel about it. Understanding this and knowing what to look for helps us all become more responsible media consumers.