Sometimes you gotta realize that people are nuts, and build it into your PR plan

Photo by Alex Miroshnichenko via Wikipedia Common.

Photo by Alex Miroshnichenko via Wikipedia Common.

I used this story in class yesterday to illustrate how tough it can be to understand and communicate with publics in emotional situations.

Effective communication always starts with knowing your audiences and anticipating how they’ll behave. But what do we do, I asked the class, when your publics take action that seems entirely irrational?

“How many of you would refuse orders to evacuate your home if you knew a wildfire might engulf the structure and kill you and your family?” No one raised a hand as we reviewed pictures of Southern California residents standing up against the flames.

You don’t need a degree in psychology to understand the phenomenon. When family, home and community are threatened, people often act in emotional and seemingly crazy ways. In other instances, they defy logic and common sense just because they can. I mean, how else do you explain facial tattoos?

PR professionals spend hours, even days, developing messages that will “make sense” to their publics. But how much time do we spend assessing the publics’ emotional needs — and their trigger points. We all know that people frequently act in ways that defy reason. And as PR professionals, it’s our job to anticipate the events that will trip those behaviors.

What about your dog? After my students told me they would never risk their lives for a house, I ask the dog owners in the class if they would enter a burning building to save their pets. Every one of them said they most likely would.

One thing is certain: Without human emotion the world would be a dull place. There would be no red sports cars, no designer suits and, God forbid, no string bikinis. But worst of all, people might not fall crazy in love and do all the silly things that come with it.

spockWhy this matters to young professionals? So many college courses stress logical methodology. From mathematics, to persuasive writing, to public speaking, students are encouraged to follow the sensible path. But in psychology and sociology, we learn the world doesn’t behave according to Star Trek’s Mr. Spock. Each one of us, in our own unique way, is just a little bit nuts.

Need more evidence of people’s irrational/emotional side. Look around at these behaviors that any sane person should consider crazy.

Riding a motorcycle or a bicycle without a helmet. Study the statistics on head trauma injuries and you’ll wonder why every state doesn’t have a helmet law.

Tobacco consumption. While tobacco is an addiction for some, anyone who wants to quit can get free counseling. Folks who regularly use tobacco are plain nuts, and most of them will die prematurely.

Food consumption to the point of obesity. This one will resonate more with readers in the South and Midwest. Apparently when you live too far from salt water you develop irrational cravings for fats and carbs. In Ohio, at least, obesity is out of control. And it’s nuts.

Tanning salons. Crank up the Google search and study the health threats posed by regular visits to the tanning bed. It’s all about vanity — another emotion that defies rationality. But hey, you look great — except for your melanoma!

Once you understand the fickleness of human nature, it becomes like the “Force” in Star Wars. You may use your knowledge for both good and evil. Once you know the public mind, you can work to manipulate the emotional responses you seek. So, like so much in public relations, it comes back to a question of ethics. If the topic intrigues you, check out my post on the “ethical continuum of persuasion.”


Jim Traficant

One final example, just for fun: Northeast Ohio is all abuzz about the return of former U.S. Congressman Jim Traficant, who was released from federal prison this week after serving 7 years for bribery and racketeering. He’s expected to return to Youngtown tomorrow to a hero’s welcome.

Jim may be a convicted felon, but he was really good at bringing home the pork to the Mahoning Valley. And he was also adept at convincing people he had their best interests at heart. In his own twisted way, he probably did.

To the rest of us, Jim is just a crook who’s done his time. But today he’s another example of irrational behavior. Beam me up, Scotty!

14 Responses to Sometimes you gotta realize that people are nuts, and build it into your PR plan

  1. metricsman says:

    Enjoyed the post, Bill. To me the key point is that PR people all too often rely on past experience, intuition and gut instinct when crafting strategy and messages. Unfortunately audience research to understand audience opinions, beliefs and attitudes all to often is not conducted to inform the campaign. PR people consistently over-estimate their understanding of the audience, emotional triggers and likely responses to content. Also, “Let’s go talk to Karen, she really understands the Gen Y audience”, is not a research-driven approach. Thanks and enjoy the weekend. -Don B @donbart

    • Bill Sledzik says:

      Your comment adds a great deal to the post, Don, and I’m a little embarrassed I didn’t say it myself. Thank you.

      Research will most often reveal the kinds of issues and concerns likely to make our publics “go nuts.” Back in my practitioner days, we identified those triggers using in-depth interviews, focus groups and good old fashioned “research by walking around.”

      Of course, I was fortunate to have clients who saw the value of research over instinct and intuition. When asked if PR is an art or a science (and we know it is both), I say I’m partial to the part that is science. It allows for replication and, at least to some degree, predictability of outcomes.

      My apologies to those who think I got “too academic” there 🙂

  2. […] Sometimes you gotta realize that people are nuts, and build it into your PR plan « ToughSledding – view page – cached #RSS 2.0 ToughSledding » Sometimes you gotta realize that people are nuts, and build it into your PR plan Comments Feed ToughSledding Let’s try this again! Book Review: ‘Putting the Public Back in Public Relations’ — From the page […]

  3. Bill Huey says:

    Don’t forget cell phone use. People will hold them upside their heads for hours on end, but they don’t want the towers anywhere near their houses because they’re afraid of EMI death rays.

  4. chuckhemann says:

    Damn! Don beat me to it! Why rest on intuition when you could simply ask your publics? Do the research ahead of time, and save yourself the trouble!

  5. Evan Roberts says:

    A great post for those of us headed back to school! I learned this the hard way last year in my Campaigns class, and what both Don and Chuck (second) said is soo true. Research done right really does save a ton of work (and rationalizing) on the back end, and it adds credibility to your plan.

    I’m glad you brought it back to sociology too Bill cause it reminded me of what my Soc prof (who was visibly nuts) would say about some of the rituals of tribal cultures we studied, “Where’d they get that from?!” Often the answer to that question made less sense than her lectures.

    Great post; nuff said

    • Bill Sledzik says:

      Sorry I’m so late on this, Evan. Busy day. What’s your sociology prof’s name? I want to send her a link to this post. I’m betting she’ll think you’re nuts for mentioning her. 🙂 On the other hand, it’s no secret that most college professors are a few bricks short of a load.

      Good luck with the school year, and best to my pals at ONU.

  6. davefleet says:

    Bill, you’re absolutely right. I think your key point is that we need to think about emotional triggers when we issue a call to action. We often think about media hooks; but what about the hooks that actually get results for the company – the ones that drive people to actually do something?

    The post you link to on the ethics around this is fascinating reading, too.

  7. Phil Gomes says:

    “Whatever happened to playing a hunch, Scully? The element of surprise, random acts of unpredictability? If we fail to anticipate the unforeseen or expect the unexpected in a universe of infinite possibilities, we may find ourselves at the mercy of anyone or anything that cannot be programmed, categorized or easily referenced.” – Fox Mulder, X-Files: Fight the Future

    I’m a big proponent of Virginia Postrel’s “Future and its Enemies” thesis, where she divides the world into stasists (those who strive to maintain the status quo through technocratic or regulatory means) and dynamists (those who take for granted that events in the pervasively analog world cannot really be categorized or predicted).

    Too often, communications plans lean towards stasis (“How can we control this?”) and don’t anticipate the dynamic aspect (“How can we ensure that we remain nimble *and* still be able to influence an outcome?”).

    Unfortunately, and however true it may be, I just can’t get away with writing “people are nuts” in my comms plans. *8-)

  8. Bill Sledzik says:

    Nor can I get away with calling people “nuts,” except in the blogosphere, where the condition is widespread!:-)

    Nice to hear from you again, Phil. As for playing a hunch, last time I did that was in Vegas. It felt like a “red” kind of day, but when the wheel stopped spinning, the little ball fell on a black number. Fortunately, I didn’t bet my return ticket.

    My sense is that hunches work better when they’re based on experience and/or research. But then they aren’t hunches anymore, but informed decisions — which are far more easily sold to the denizens of the C-suites.

  9. How about not wanting my child to hear the president tell him or her to have aspiration and set goals? Wouldn’t want that, either. Let’s have a national outcry and make sure we get LOTS of media coverage.

    • Bill Sledzik says:

      I try to keep politics out of the blog, but you cite an excellent example. I heard the harangue about the President’s speech on “hate radio” this morning — also known as my local talk station that appeals to angry white males. Appealing to people’s anger and indignation is a common strategy in political circles, and in this case it’s being used by folks who give no consideration to the ethics. They exist to obstruct, and care little about dialogue or compromise. So I ignore them.

  10. ahrcanum says:

    “One final example, just for fun”- how does the plan find humor in the conviction of a member of congress? Do you think the Madoff scam so funny as well? Even Obama is trying to convince you that he has your best interests at heart- even as his PR numbers are dropping.

  11. Bill Sledzik says:

    Not sure how to answer this last one, as I don’t understand the reference to “plan.” The humor lies not in the misfortunes of the Congressman, but in those who worship him as a hero. It’s just not rational. The Madoff scam is sad, but another example of people acting irrationally. You know the old saying, “If it sounds too good to be true…”

    Not at all sure how this connects to the President, but you’re welcome to fill us in.

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