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.
Why 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.”
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!