Tuesday, June 2, 2009

PR and What People Know

Remember those old models of the molecule? Protons were positive, electrons were negative, and neutrons were undecided, usually all in balance to create a stable molecule.

Now think of an attitude in the same way, except rarely is it in balance. For most of us, any attitude object -- a person, a place, a company, nearly anything at all -- comes with positive, negative, and neutral bits of information, the result rarely if ever coming out equal. If I dislike Dancing with the Stars (and I do), then I'll list more negatives than positives.

This is where attitudes meet knowledge. And this is also the realm of PR.

As PR guru Karen Russell would happily note, I'm not a PR guy, I'll never be a PR guy, and PR is all the better for it, so I'll keep my PR discussion to a minimum and instead focus on attitudes and knowledge and how difficult it can be to change an attitude through the use of information. It comes down to this -- misperception is awfully hard to change.

Let me give you a recent example.

During the recent presidential campaign there was a rumor out there that Barrack Obama was Muslim, despite all information and facts to the contrary. Who stuck to that belief? People who already had reason to believe the worst about Obama, mostly conservative Christians and hardcore Republicans. The attitude overwhelmed knowledge. Indeed, putting out "true" information will sway some people but not those who are already attitudinally predisposed to be against you -- which is why I'd make a lousy PR person. It'd drive me nuts.

There are ways to attack this, I suppose. One is parody and humor, to make fun of the misperception. That's a tricky tactic and it seems to work better for younger people than for older people. I'm sure there are differences in the kind of client you represent, both in their openness to such a dangerous strategy and whether it'd really work or not. Some companies would never accept such an approach, simply because it flies against their tradition. Pitch this campaign and you'd be out the door and looking for clients elsewhere.

Simply putting out "true" information, that doesn't work either, not for the hardcore believers, but you might add a few "protons" to their molecular attitude, soften their perception a little, but you have to be careful here too. Attacking the misperception as something held by idiots, that's gonna backfire, or so predicts most theories of persuasion. People love to counterargue, both internally and with others, and by forcing them into this counterargument you often push their attitudes to an even greater extreme. The research on attitude extremity is neat and gets right at this, but it's not something we spend a lot of time looking at in mass comm.

As an aside, we do know from the social psych literature that making someone generate arguments against their position tends to soften their attitudes -- the "walking in someone else's shoes" approach.

So it all comes down to protons, neutrons, and electrons, except in this case we're talking attitudes and not molecules. Each bit and piece of information goes into our head, gets mixed up, and we apply some personal algebraic formula to arrive at an overall attitude. Knowledge can influence attitudes, but more often it goes the other way around, and that makes it damned difficult if you're trying to generate positive attitudes about someone or some thing.


Karen Russell said...

First of all, I'm not a guru. Second of all, what I usually point out is that although you aren't and never will be a PR person, at least you had the good sense to marry one.

Hollander said...

I married a PR person -- but it sure as hell hasn't helped my PR.

Hollander said...

I married a PR person -- but it sure as hell hasn't helped my PR.

Hollander said...

Okay, I posted the same thing twice. All part of my master PR plan.

Concerned Citizen said...

You will never be a science guy either. Atoms are composed of Protons, Neutrons and Electrons (as well as other theoretical particles and energy) . Molecules are composed of Atoms. The number of Protons and Electrons in an Atom define the overall charge of the Atom. The overall charge of the Molecule is determined by the configuration of the Atoms and their cumulative charge. Neutrons are not ‘undecided’ they are Neutral. The number of Neutrons determine Atomic Mass of the Atom, but has zero effect on the charge.

As for the actual subject of your blog today, I personally find that holding a physical hard copy is much more enjoyable than reading on line. Knowing that what is in the paper (and on-line articles) is subject to the writers opinions and often inadequate grasp of the facts, I find that whether reading on-line or hard copy, if there is an article that peaks my interest I will use on-line resources to dig just a bit deeper. Oh, and there is something to be said for the portability of the newspaper and the ability to take it along with me in carrying out my morning routine of personal functions. ;-)

Hollander said...

Doh!!! You're right, got the atom and molecule thing confused. So much for reaching for the wrong analogy.

I spend hours online, but nothing replaces a hard copy. Hell, research even shows that you catch more editing mistakes on a hard copy than you do on a screen.

Concerned Citizen said...

I do a lot of technical writing. I compose on the screen, but for a final edit I print everything out. The errors just seem to jump out better.