Lessons In Persuasion From The Political World
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Lessons In Persuasion From The Political World

Now that businesses are entering a public conversation about their brand and issues, they must learn to take a similar approach to that taken by political campaigns.

Holmes Report

Developing research into the power of emotional appeals in politics is starting to change how political organisations operate. Now that businesses are entering a public conversation about their brand and issues, they must learn to take a similar approach to that taken by campaigns. Many businesses already display a very sophisticated approach to emotional messaging in their advertising and marketing campaigns – the entire concept of branding is, of course, emotional. However, unlike political campaigns, businesses have not managed to transfer these skills into their general public messaging. Many still struggle in public debate.

It is tempting for those that work in corporate communications to think cultivating a more emotional approach is easier for political campaigns, where they deal with subjects passionate people care about. Indeed, it is certainly true to say there are many people that care a great deal about politics and follow it closely. However, as we have seen, campaigns always seek to move people emotionally, even on issues that do not appear to lend themselves to such an approach. Businesses can therefore do far more to develop an emotional approach.

Vast numbers of people really do care about issues like whether the council will grant planning permission for a supermarket, and they care about issues like food safety, the cost of petrol, and about the hiring and firing practices of big companies. And we know that significant minorities of the public care about things like executive salaries, the treatment of suppliers and so on.

Like campaigns, even on issues that are apparently technocratic and boring, businesses can make people feel something. Announcements made about expansion plans can talk about the families given new hope through new jobs; successful years can be talked about in the context of the long history of the firm or the lives and experiences of the successful staff; opposition to new regulations can be blamed on out-of-touch politicians. There is almost always a way for businesses to take bland news stories and give them an emotional tint.

There are five key ways businesses can apply a more emotional approach to their communications.

1. Willingness to take more risks in public positioning

Businesses should take more risks in their general public positioning and how they inject themselves into public debate. While many businesses prefer to stay out of the media, particularly on issues normally dealt with by their public affairs teams, they actually need to hit the public radar on more issues that move the public emotionally and that define them positively.

For example, while the natural reaction of many firms that face tax rises on their industry is to lobby government directly and keep any row out of the newspapers and away from potentially nervous investors, businesses should at least consider the opposite. Sometimes it will benefit a business to have a public row with the government to send a message to customers they are on their side. Sometimes it makes sense to seek out high-profile stories that say something about the business’ values and approach.

Businesses do not get many chances to move people in this way and they should take them where they can. Public arguments provoke strong feelings in people. A row along the lines set out above could make people feel sympathy towards the business, or make them feel angry towards the government and make them more likely to follow the story moving forward.

2. Looking harder for newsworthy stories

Related to this, businesses need to re-evaluate what counts as a good story. While businesses always need to explain results, new appointments and general strategy to interested parties through the media, they need to start thinking harder about how to generate coverage that moves people emotionally but stands the chance of being read widely. While the main news bulletins are always going to be beyond the reach of all but the best-known companies, it is still very much a possibility for most businesses to get coverage on popular news sites and blogs, in magazines and on softer news shows.

Some businesses need to consider generating quirkier stories on things like acts of remarkable customer service where a staff member has gone well beyond the call of duty, or highlighting surprising CSR programmes. Some businesses might publicise speeches from senior executives articulating a different and more decent way of conducting operations and treating staff.

3. Use of emotive language

Businesses can apply a more emotional approach in the general language they use. Too many businesses send out statements that are too long, too complex, and which use technical or insider’s language. Businesses often behave as if the media outlet they are providing a statement for is itself the audience, rather than being the intermediary to the audiences outside in the real world. Businesses need to develop a more people-friendly approach to their communications and above all use language that moves people emotionally.

Their (hopefully extensive) opinion research will point the way, but they should be more willing to deploy concepts like fairness, decency, aspiration, hope, concern, and even fear or fun. They need constantly to think about what will attract the attention of ordinary people who come across their stories and read their comments. If they could not imagine someone nodding in agreement and potentially repeating their statement, they should think again about it.

4. Better visuals

Establishing effective visuals is undoubtedly difficult, particularly from an earned media perspective when the organisation is effectively collaborating with a media organisation to create the right shots. But much of the hard work is done by thinking about what it is that the organisation actually wants to project – the logistics follow on from this.

Some people reading this might think they have a more fundamental problem – their organisation is not high-profile enough to get on TV and not rich enough to buy significant ad space. There is no doubt that if you work in government or a high-profile campaign, getting on TV is relatively easy. The bottom line remains true though – if you accept visual imagery is extremely powerful, then it is worth thinking hard about how to create visuals in principle.

Perhaps there are opportunities to develop visual material to sit on the business’ website or social media platforms. Perhaps short ads can be made relatively cheaply to be placed on relevant websites and social media platforms. Perhaps it is worth thinking hard about the right backdrops to those events that are likely to get coverage – announcements of results, for example. Businesses should certainly not think that visuals are not worth worrying about if they are not being called up regularly by the main news programmes. Visuals are always worth worrying about.

5. Taking a moral stance

Businesses need to develop a more self-conscious moral approach to their communications. Of all of these methods, this might seem the most difficult for businesses to achieve. Can they really take a moral approach as profit-making corporate brands? Emphatically, yes. Businesses can show that they have a strong moral outlook, that they are honest, decent and trustworthy. This is what many firms are doing already with their CSR campaigns, but they can take this approach into their wider, public communications.

Part of this response will be similar to the emotional response. In other words, businesses can simply be more active in playing moral arguments into their communications and using language which stresses issues like fairness, decency and so on. Similarly, they can also choose to create what you might call moral moments – interesting events designed to secure public and media attention and which tell a moral story. Again, much of this might come out of the business’ CSR programme, but it might also include highlighting their enlightened working practices, generous compensation of customers for poor service or sponsorship of worthy events.

Businesses should also get into the habit of mobilising third parties on their behalf, getting respected people to engage for them. People will always trust a business’ position on a set of issues more if independent and respected people come out and back them, or say the same things publicly. This is time consuming and difficult but the rewards can be massive.

Many businesses do find moral confidence uncomfortable and many of their communications campaigns suffer as a result. But, assuming that they are right on an issue, businesses should be extremely confident in their public communications and should explicitly seek to take the moral high ground with no feelings of self-consciousness whatever. As we will see, endorsements always help, but the public are sensible and will sympathise with whoever has the best arguments.

General rules for messaging

Businesses, like political campaigns, should remember the power of emotion and morality in their communications. Their public-facing materials – everything from newspaper columns, to their blogs, to their public statements – should keep this in mind. But there are other characteristics of successful messaging that businesses should reflect.

Journalists and consultants have written a great deal about this over the years, with many suggestions for the defining characteristics of successful messaging. In Words that Work, Frank Luntz writes about ‘The Ten Rules of Effective Language’, which includes advice such as using small words and small sentences, being consistent, speaking aspirationally and bringing language to life through visualisation.

Journalist Joe Klein argues that politicians should at all times seek “authenticity”, being as real and unvarnished as possible to engage voters and veteran Republican consultant Joseph Gaylord warns politicians, in his excellent Flying Upside Down, against focusing on obvious public priorities, arguing that it is hard to be distinctive and credible in these areas. All of these provide extremely useful food for thought.

Having worked for a number of years in political campaigns, in the commercial world for major brands and also in government, I have established my own list. For me, messages must be: Clear, Targeted, Credible, Interesting, and Dynamic. These are the issues that have been on my mind as the campaigns I have worked on have taken shape.

James Frayne works at Rubenstein Communications in New York City. Before that he was a senior figure at various PR agencies and political campaigns in London and was the Director of Communications at the Department for Education. His new book – Meet the People – is published by Harriman House and looks at how the art of public persuasion can be transferred from the political to the corporate world.

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