Avoid stony indifference: prime your audiences directly

When it comes to communications planning, organizations of every ilk seem to spend a lot of time fussing about messages, tactics and products.

Communication, however — the very thing we are hoping to facilitate with this planning — only happens between people who are already connected and attending to each other — giving and sharing their attention.

In other words, a well-crafted message is only a message if people are ready to receive it and understand it. Otherwise, it is one more tree falling noiselessly in a forest.

The need to prime an audience for a message or story is the central insight of effective media relations. The very best people working in media relations build and nurture relationships with reporters and editors, to ensure they are ready to hear a pitch when it is made. The relationship — not the press release, key message or holding line — usually makes and shapes the story.

However, the story, much like the well-crafted key message, is only a story if people are ready to receive and understand it.  

Today, all of your audiences are very much like reporters and editors. Thousands of people are clamouring for their attention every minute of every day. Thanks to social media, they also have the means to reach thousands of people any minute of any day.

However, the influencer’s social media post, like the reporter’s front page story and your well-crafted message, is meaningful only if people are ready to receive and understand it.  

Thinking again of the example of effective media relations, we know the relationship is the most important consideration when it comes to priming an audience for a message. Relationships, we also know, happen between people. They can, in some cases, be nurtured digitally but nothing will ever surpass the effectiveness of regular and face-to-face interactions.  

This means, I think, that the people in an organization who most often directly interact with the organization’s primary target audience must be empowered to nurture the kind of relationship that will prime the audience to receive and understand the organization’s message. If it works for the media, it should work for other audiences too.

The challenge, of course, will be to nurture as many individual relationships as possible and to do it as efficiently as possible.

This goal has always been the siren song of media relations and, more recently, of social media influencers. A well-placed story or Instagram post, it is assumed, reaches a larger audience much more efficiently.

While this might have been true once upon a time, we now know that the chance of reaching a target audience through these means is much more of a gamble and not a sure thing. It is also much more difficult to control the message that is delivered. An organization’s own employees, I think, are in a much better position to prime its audiences effectively.

The other important consideration is operational.

Who in an organization is ultimately accountable for ensuring that all employees who engage with the organization’s audiences are empowered to prime them for its message?

Because this outcome involves communication, many different parts of an organization could share the responsibility. Crucially, however, if no one part of it is definitively accountable, the organization’s approach will be neither uniform nor coherent and ultimately piecemeal.

If your audience is hearing multiple messages from different parts of the organization, it won’t hear any of them or only those it wants to hear.   

Ultimately, there are many paths to your target audience, but, if your audience is not ready to receive and understand your message, it will not be communicated. The path taken will matter little.

If it makes good sense to prime journalists and editors and social media influencers to hear your message, it makes good sense to prime your target audience directly, relying on the employees who most often interact with it.

If no part of your organization is specifically accountable for ensuring that all relevant employees are empowered to prime your audience, it is likely that no one is doing it or, at best, it being done piecemeal or as an afterthought.

If that is true, your organization is overlooking the most important piece of the communication puzzle. Without the charitable attention of your audiences, your messages, tactics and products will encounter only stony indifference.



Why Folks Don’t Help: A Hypothesis, Plausible Responses, And The Foundations of A Communications Strategy

Some background assumptions:

Most people are good, well-meaning, want to improve the well-being of others (especially the worse-off), and can in fact improve the well-being of others (especially the worse-off).

The problem:

Most persons could do more than they are presently doing to improve the well-being of others (especially the worse-off) and could do so at very little cost to themselves (E.g. minor reductions in consumption spending). In many cases, the short-term costs would even be off-set with long term benefits (e.g. a volunteer position helps a person land a job, the elimination of poverty will contribute to peace and stability and create economic growth).

The hypothesis:

Choice overload plays an important role. There is good empirical evidence (click here for the research paper) which suggests that when people are confronted with too many choices, they choose not to choose. And this makes sense. If a person wants to make a good choice rather than a bad choice, when presented with too many choices, the amount of energy required to make a good choice may seem too costly and the risk of making a bad choice very high. As a result, it may make sense to make no choice at all. I personally have experienced this phenomenon in my own consumer choices and my own efforts to volunteer. 

So, with this phenomenon of reasoning in mind, one can speculate that many people are not doing as much as they could to improve the well-being of others (especially the worse-off) because they are “spoiled for choice.” When a well-meaning person is confronted with so many legitimate claims on his or her time, energy, and resources, he or she may choose to do nothing at all. Moreover, from this perspective, certain well-meaning people actually exasperate the problem by calling attention to how many legitimate claims do exist.

Plausible Response To This Phenomenon:

1) Simplify the choice. E.g. “You can help the developing world, you can help folks here at home, or you can do both.”   

2) Make the choice on their behalf or have someone else make the choice:. “I think the best thing to do is …”; “Singer says, this is the best way to give ….” 

3) Emphasize any choice is a good choice. “Every little bit helps / makes a difference!” 

4) Make the choice seem effortless. “It only takes a few minutes to make a real difference.”

I think these basic responses represent an important part of the framework for an effective communications strategy for all aid organizations. When I think of the most successful campaigns I’ve encountered, they all incorporate these responses. There are also CRM best practice associated with each. For example, it shouldn’t take much effort for me to give an organization my time or money. 

Thoughts? Additions? Etc?


As an addendum, this post was inspired by Julie’s posted link here and PPBP blog’s post and discussion, found here

For more of my social and political commentary, click here.


Another Important Discovery! February 2009. A Tuesday. Eleven-ish.

In a previous post (this one here), I suggested — rather formally — that it is a mistake to try to interpret another person’s understanding of the world, her intentions, and her behaviors by simply assuming her understanding of the world, her intentions, and her behaviors are much like one’s own. People are different and, as a result, think and act differently.

It again seems to me a rather trite point to make, but I guarantee  — I guarantee! — 99.99% of all people do not fully understand this point and / or do not  normally act in accord with its implications. I, for one, often need to remind myself both of the point and of its implications  — and I write about it!

At any rate, it occurred to me yesterday that there is a kind of corollary to this claim. It is this :

A person can’t control how another person will interpret his understanding of the world, his intentions, and his behavior.

In other words, even when a person is honest, clear, and direct, there is no manner, method, or style of communicating that can compel another person to understand what is communicated in a single specific sense. All that one can hope for is a charitable interpretation of what one communicates and even then how that interpretation falls out in actual practice will largely depend on the person doing the interpreting. After all, even a charitable reading of what a person says or does may not accord with what a person is intending to say and do. 

Now I want to make it clear that I am not suggesting that it is impossible for people to understand each other. People can and do understand each other but my point is that a full and mutual understanding takes effort, diligence, and good will amongst all parties involved — it doesn’t “just happen”. Moreover, for most people who think “they just get each other”, I am prepared to speculate that these people are generally misunderstanding each other or generally not understanding each other at all.