PA professionals: picking the right “influential” people

A Public Affairs staple, as with all fields of communications, is to seek out “influential” people who support your side of the story and are willing to say so. This gives you and your side of the story credibility, so the logic goes.

So who is usually sought out as “influential” in PA? Often, the academic (or scientist) for clearly these are highly credible folk: smart, independent and presumably not profit driven. Again, sounds logical, you’d think, and what’s more, the Trust Barometer tells us academics are amongst the most trusted people out there.

Yet as anyone working on issues in Brussels can confirm, you can have scores of cuddly, bearded academics on your side, without the tide changing on your issue.

Why not? Could one reason be that we’re applying rational thinking to an irrational process? You ask someone who they trust: the CEO, the academic, an NGO, someone like you… You’re given time to think, and you’ll provide the rational answer: clearly, I trust academics.

Yet we don’t make decisions rationally, we do so emotionally. Our gut tells us how it is. In a meeting I recently attended, a clever man said that 95% of decisions are “emotional” not rational. Let’s be conservative and cut that down to 80% for the purposes of my little illustration here:

In summary:

  • Academics and scientists appeal to our rational being, which reflects perhaps 20% of decisions.
  • Who could influence emotional decision making? Perhaps a regular Joe like me with a clear link to the issue at hand, ideally an emotional link (I work in industry X which people are trying to shut down; my child suffered at the hands of substance Y). A celeb? Not any celeb, but a well-known person with a less than spurious connection to a cause (OK hardly Brussels fare, but remember Joanna Lumley and the Gurkhas, legitimised by the fact that her father had been in a Gurkha regiment?) Or a community and/or business  leader who, again, might not be just like me or be a celeb, but has taken an issue on board with real fervour.
  • What do these type of influencers have in common? In short, they approach an issue from the heart, not in a cold-blooded analytical fashion, and are thus more likely to influence emotional decision-making.
  • And journalists? Clearly influencers, but they’re hard to place – it depends on the individual, the publication and their approach on the day, so I’ve placed them on the threshold.

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