Some corporate communicators and pubic affairs practitioners still focus too much on the message, and not enough on the target: audiences are defined as broadly as ”media” or “policy-makers” and even the meaningless “general public”.
As top-tier marketers and political campaigners have known forever, target audiences need to be narrowed down enormously: a communicator should ideally break down their target list all the way to single individuals within each audience segment, be it real individuals when audience numbers are small or budgets are huge, or more likely, fictional but highly representative personas.
This will in turn enable the communicator to: a) more easily determine what that person wants or needs thorough research and testing (possibly involving some scrutiny of social data); b) based on that, understand whether there is any overlap between their wants and needs and what the communicator can offer; and c) if so, communicate accordingly.
Again, too often, corporate communicators bypass these steps, and develop 2 or 3 broad-based messages that in theory should reach and influence all “media” or “policy-makers” or whatnot. What is far more likely to work is closer inspection of audiences, then targeting multiple segments applying tweaked storylines based on what’s most likely to affect each one. In essence, what political campaigners call micro-targeting.
Why is this not the norm? Why do we invest in “messaging sessions” without first knowing much about whom we are trying to influence? A mix of reasons no doubt, but first and foremost, it’s a legacy of old-school PR largely based on hunches and relationships, and communicators not being accountable enough for their output.
In a recent post – A business delusion: “non-profits win because they can peddle misinformation” – I implied that corporate communicators tend to underestimate the sophistication of the non-profit’s communications toolkit. Building on that, I’d argue that NGOs often win because corporates approach communications far too rationally.
We’re not rational beings. Think family, friends or political affiliation: do we evaluate each rationally i.e. weigh up pros and cons and then decide whether we like them or not? Of course not. Yet most corporate communicators must think we do. Show people facts, data or science – they claim – or tell them stories repeatedly, and they’ll be won over.
This ignores two factors:
- Confirmation bias: we invariably seek to confirm our existing beliefs; no matter how credible, opposing proof points are unlikely to change our fundamental views (and may even strengthen them.)
- NGOs don’t simply present their side of the story; they frame issues as ethical (them) vs. unethical (their opponents). And once you’ve been portrayed as unethical, you can’t fight the label by rationalising.
So what options remain for corporate communicators (including PA professionals)?
- Give up on trying to convince everyone. If confirmation bias is at play, beliefs run deep. Ignore and move on to groups whose views are not so set in stone.
- Fight an ethical battle; build legitimacy passionately not rationally, and don’t be afraid of getting into a scrap.
- Build legitimacy beyond issues; being top-tier (and credible) employers and citizens can have a greater impact than a credible take on day-to-day issues, for instance.
- Don’t just rebut your opponent’s position: create an alternative narrative rather than seeking to reframe the prevailing one.
- If you do rebut, don’t belittle the recipient: you know where they stand and see their point, but beg to differ.