PR pros and triggering events: anticipate, create

Forgive me, but I’m feeling academic today.

Photo courtesy of BP

There’s a good chance President Obama’s plan to expand offshore drilling won’t go smoothly. You all know why.

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a classic triggering event, and not a welcome one if your future is staked to the oil business. People are certain to change their views about offshore drilling as a result of this incident.

History is full of triggering events. Three Mile Island, in 1979, triggered enough fear and anxiety to kill the expansion of American nuclear power. The Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989 triggered legislation mandating double-hull construction for supertankers.

The Kent State shootings, which occurred 40 years ago tomorrow on my campus, galvanized America’s opposition to the war in Southeast Asia.

Most people know the term, “triggering event.” But wise PR practitioners know to anticipate them — and even create them. Pat Jackson’s behavioral model of public relations gives the triggering event a central role in strategy. The key, says Jackson, is to understand what people are able, willing and ready to do. Then make it possible.

In public relations, behavior is the only evaluation that counts…Yet too many practitioners think of themselves as communicators. They believe their objective is to move information, facts, data or feelings. And they evaluate success by the number of clips, attendance, reach, or similar measures. To all of which knowledgeable employers ask: So what? What has changed because of this? Never mind what our publics are thinking; the question is, what are they doing?

Public Relations Practices: Managerial Case Studies and Problems (Center & Jackson)

Jackson’s simplified behavior model looks like this:

Jackson's behavioral communication model.

In the communication process as Jackson presents it, awareness and knowledge of an idea creates a predisposition to act on the message. Of course, not everyone pays attention or is moved to the stage of “latent readiness.” But those who are may be moved along by the triggering event.

There’s nothing sinister going on here, just simple persuasion aimed at people predisposed to take action anyway. It aligns public need with opportunity to fulfill that need.

Jackson told us that successful PR practitioners build triggering events into their plans, shifting the emphasis to behaviors instead of communication. Those behaviors are the measurable outcomes that often elude the people who focus on impressions, reach, ad equivalency and other nonsense.

Behaviors are the bottom-line outcomes CEOs understand.

Some examples to illustrate:

Harnessing a news event. A fire department, following the death of a local family from carbon monoxide poisoning, creates “CO Action Week.” The department enlists the gas company, a local retailer and a manufacturer of CO detectors to help.

By week’s end, 2,000 homeowners install CO detectors for the first time — CO detectors bought (at a discount) from the sponsoring manufacturer through the sponsoring retailer.  It’s a public service with a measurable and profitable outcome. Win-win. Just be careful your campaign isn’t seen as exploiting tragedy.

Update 5-5-2010: Here’s another example, and germane to this post. It’s how P&G involves it’s “Dawn” brand in oil-spill cleanup. Some will be cynical, but this is a fine example of corporate social responsibility.

Aligning with nature’s issues. It’s spring in the Midwest, and homeowners are again dealing with the arrival of Canada geese. What better time to position “Goose-B-Gone.” Your staff ornithologist will make a fine resource for media. And let’s not forget the interest you might drum up among gardening bloggers or HGTV producers.

If you’ve worked with your marketing staff, you’ll have in-store displays in place and co-op money for retailers who want to participate. You’ll owe your increased sales to a triggering event called spring migration.

Creating your own triggers. PR people are experts at staging events, but too often we label them as “awareness weeks.” You can’t make payroll with awareness, folks. Behaviors, on the other hand, make a business case for your program every time.

So as you plan your next “really cool” event or campaign, think about tangible outputs first, communication second. How will the event directly boost sales, recruit members or raise money? You can measure those outputs.

Yeah, you can measure awareness, too. But it’s tough to do, and no one in the C-suites really cares.

Intermediate behaviors. Not all PR campaigns can lead to specific behaviors, so don’t forget to measure the intermediate steps such a literature requests, telephone inquiries or Web traffic. But when you do, be sure to capture information that helps you to match intermediate behaviors to end results. It’s not tough if you keep good records.

I know what you’re thinking: What the hell got into Sledzik this week? He’s gone all preachy on us. The answer is simple: business got into me.

Too many PR campaign are still measured on communication outcomes that don’t translate to a good business case.

Sure, not everything we do leads directly to a sale, or a vote, or a donation. But wouldn’t we win a lot more friends if it did?

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5 Responses to PR pros and triggering events: anticipate, create

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by BillSledzik, Ryan Schoenefeld. Ryan Schoenefeld said: RT @BillSledzik: Thinking and writing about "triggering events" and their role in PR planning. http://bit.ly/aJ8O4o At the blog. [...]

  2. april says:

    Canada geese arriving to the Midwest? They don’t really arrive anymore. They figured out how to stay here all year round.

    • Bill Sledzik says:

      Some geese do winter over, but there’s still a significant portion that don’t. Some of those arrived at my place about 6 weeks ago and already have 13 little ones pooping to their hearts’ content.

  3. Bill Huey says:

    Yes, what the hell HAS gotten into the old professor?
    Has he abandoned the two-way symmetrical model–with its emphasis on research and consensus building–in favor of exploiting “triggering” events? That sounds more like the old charlatan Bernays, who made a living creating events that would make news, i.e., the “Torches of Freedom” parade to expand sales of Lucky Strike cigarettes by targeting women.

  4. Bill Sledzik says:

    Heh, heh. I believe you missed this line: “There’s nothing sinister about this.”

    Triggering events remove barriers to behavior and — as I point out in the one example — crate potential win-win scenarios. Naturally, the technique requires a heavy dose of ethics and social responsibility. But that’s a given in my teaching model.

    Also don’t see triggering events as incompatible with a symmetrical approach, but I do realize that diehard followers of Professor Grunig just might. Organizations that listen and adapt (a tenet Bernays spoke of in “The Engineering of Consent”) are better equipped to serve needs of stakeholders. Symmetry should not preclude them from using honest techniques of persuasion.

    As for the “Torches of Freedom” thing, it’s tough to fault Bernays for that campaign. In 1929, smoking wasn’t seen as a major threat to public health, but social prohibition of smoking by women was a symbolic threat to equal rights and opportunities for women.

    Everything in context, my friend!

    Glad you dropped back. It’s been a while!

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