The bombs went off within a few hundred yards of Ruder-Finn's U.K. offices and within minutes it was time to go back to the learnings that I brought from clinical psychology to the world of PR. Predictably, the reactions of Ruder Finners were diverse, ranging from excessive humour to frank fear. The immediate problem was two mothers who felt compelled to return home to be near their children despite the fact that there was no transport and the kids were being looked after in school. One calmed quickly but the other I had to take “out of herself ” before she could look sensibly at the options. I asked her who she most trusted in the world and what that person would say if they were here. The answer was, as I hoped, “stay put, we don’t know when the bombs will stop; telephone the school and tell them that you are okay.”
Common sense or psychology? Fifteen years after resigning from a profession I had spent seven years training for, I wondered after the events of 7/7 what had worked in terms of knowledge transfer from psychology to PR. Much of my time in PR has been spent managing crises and clients who have found themselves responsible for big decisions for big companies. The diversity of their reactions to adverse events in the face of an increasing culture of success only, has made me rethink what a good observer Freud actually was. The classic defence mechanisms of projection, denial and the rest are all to be seen in individual behavior when people are placed under stress.
In one case where an explosion had killed two workers and resulted in significant environmental damage, the CEO of the company stood up in front of the assembled crisis committee at five o’clock and calmly announced that it was time to take his children riding. This was a textbook case of denial. His deputy exploded and two sidebar meetings had to be held before we could get back to the real business. The first meeting pointed out to him the consequences of his actions, as they would appear when viewed in retrospect a few months later. The second meeting allowed him to express his anger at the situation and he was then able to resume his normal decisionmaking role.
More difficult to manage is the fear that rapidly overtakes senior managers as they realize that a situation could cause a significant threat to their job, a brand or a company. Some of the worst-managed crises have resulted from delays while the senior managers engage in a search for someone to blame other than themselves. This is known as wolf packing, and in order to move on, the individuals must be brought back to an adult focus and given renewed awareness of their collective responsibility.
As I began my career in PR, one of my clients was a major manufacturer of breakfast cereals who was consistently the subject of articles in the media reporting minor contamination of products. The effect on sales, however, was dramatically disproportionate to the fairly minor nature of the threat and it brought to mind a psychological example where subjective threat is far in excess of the objective threat; obsessive-compulsive disorder. While treating patients, I had learnt that there were two components to subjective threat: subjective probability and subjective cost.
Typically, someone washing their hands hundreds of times a day fearing contamination, illness, and death had to be persuaded that the probability of being contaminated was lower than they believed and, secondly, that if contamination did occur that the consequences or cost were less severe than they believed. A third element to successful treatment was that it was vital that patients exposed themselves to their fear; in other words, they did something. In reality this meant lots of cleaning of lavatories and garbage bins! Duration of relief from symptoms was directly related to the amount of exposure to threat that the patients experienced.
By adopting this approach, a new strategy was devised for my food client; product recall advertising in the main national press. Each advertisement addressed probability and cost and provided at least one action, which ranged from returning the product to a store to phoning a telephone helpline. As a consequence of this approach, coverage of food scares reduced dramatically and another snippet from psychology had found a new niche in public relations.
The UK was hit with an outbreak of salmonella in eggs, chickens, and a few people. The Minister for Health made multiple pronouncements on the probability of infection. “Only one in 10,000 eggs is infected.” “Only one in 100,000 chickens is infected,” but egg consumption dropped from five eggs per person per week to only one.
Three million chickens had to be destroyed, farmers were demonstrating, and a few patients died with their cases covered extensively in the media. The Minister had to resign. She was replaced by an older doctor with grey hair, a soft Scottish accent and a very different message. “Most of us have had salmonella and unless you are very old, very young, or at risk from infections, it will pass quickly and can be treated effectively. If you think you are at risk, cook your eggs for twice the normal time and avoid raw eggs. If you follow this advice you are unlikely to be troubled.” Within two weeks, egg consumption was back to three per person per week. The new Minister had addressed cost and probability and given people something to do.
There has been an increasing trend toward evaluation in recent years and this has changed the emphasis in public relations away from straight column inches toward more complex analysis of message content and type; however, traditionally there have been few tools available to guide the process of ensuring that a persuasive communication resulted in an enduring change in behaviour, such as a purchase decision.
We basically process information in two different ways: Central and Peripheral. Central processing involves careful consideration of the facts as they are presented, and changes in attitude allow one to predict how behaviour will change. Peripheral processing is a much less intensive process but relies on temporary endorsement of short-term decisions such as you might expect from say celebrity endorsement. Central processing is, however, a vital component when large purchases are considered, and there is considerable evidence that even if consideration of a purchase is triggered by an advertisement, this can cause central processing to be engaged.
One small example of this, which made me laugh, was when my wife became pregnant with twins and pointed out that we needed a new car, so one Saturday morning we set out to town and she insisted that we go only to the Volvo showroom. On arrival the salesman enquired “whether sir has bought a boat or madam is pregnant” to which my wife replied that she was indeed pregnant and only Volvos had side impact protection systems. An advertisement had triggered an interest in my wife due to her changed circumstances that had caused her to consider safety systems in cars.
An important step in the path of central processing is the ability to process. In the United Kingdom the average reading age is that of a nine-to eleven-year-old child, yet we constantly pump out press releases on technical subjects to national newspapers using language that, if faithfully reported, will be largely incomprehensible to our target consumer audience. This is a failure on the part of PR, and we must be more prepared to examine ways to shift peripheral attitudes. There are multiple points at which to direct persuasive communications, however we frequently fail to exploit these, or measure them to achieve our goals. As PR professionals, if we systematically look at the way we put together PR programmes and align them to the processing ability of our audiences, we are more likely to produce effective solutions.
The examples that I have given barely scratch the surface of the ways in which our learnings from psychology can be applied to the practice of public relations. However, what is evident is that the true value of adapting psychological models is that although they may not be perfect for every situation, they do allow us to use a mental checklist to refine proposals and to provide explanations of our recommendations to clients.