How Persuasive is Your Message?

In the last two weeks, 2169 articles touching on the subject of education have been published in Canadian online media. This information was found using CoreAlerts, Gnowit’s media-monitoring platform. As a way of looking at how media coverage of an issue affects its treatment in government, I began tracking the term “education” using HansardWatch (there have been 201 federal Hansard documents published in the last two weeks, in case you’re wondering).

While I have yet to learn anything definitive from this exercise, it did get me thinking about the complicated relationship between two communication-based fields: public relations (PR) and government relations (GR). While PR professionals are primarily concerned with protecting their clients in the media, those in GR advocate for them by engaging in lobbying and related activities. These fields are distinct, but they’re integrating more and more. Increasingly, PR agencies are recognizing the powerful effects of coordinating communications and lobbying efforts.

For this reason (and because advocacy work is, first and foremost, about relationship-building), I would argue that GR professionals should be as aware of what constitutes effective communication as their PR counterparts. And really, given all of the the reputation-damaging comments that fly through the Twitterverse (sometimes at the hands of politicians and even those who work in PR), couldn’t we all stand to review some communication basics? With that in mind, check out this list of descriptors that should apply to your messages, whether they’re aimed at decision-makers or stakeholders.

 

Data-driven: 

Who isn’t convinced by cold, hard facts? Whether you have to make your case to a government official or the general public, it will likely hold more water if it’s backed by research and statistics. There is one major caveat to this point in the form of the biased assimilation effect, whereby people tend only to accept evidence that supports their existing beliefs. And then, of course, there’s the fact that numbers are often challenged (just look at the recent Bill C-51 poll, which was criticized for its contradictory conclusions that Canadians both support and are largely unaware of the bill).

These objections aside, nobody can deny that, in many circumstances, data has power. It can sway fence sitters, along with those concerned about acting in accord with public opinion. Consider the following example. Pharmaceutical companies are pushing for tougher patent protections in trade agreements. Some advocacy groups have lobbied against these companies, claiming their proposed protections will hurt poor and vulnerable people. In addition to using documented facts to prove this claim, these groups would ideally want to find data showing a lack of public support for the protections (like this Ipsos-Reid poll, which would likely give pause to many politicians).

 

Logical:

Between our increasingly hectic lifestyles and the rapid-fire pace of the 24-hour news cycle, we don’t always have the time to process logical arguments. But it would be a mistake to underestimate their importance. As the foundation of all rational thought, logic is a universal ideal (so much so that we often commit logical fallacies to convince ourselves that our emotionally-based beliefs are, in fact, logical). Aristotle recognized this when he referred to logic (aka “logos”) as one of the top three modes of persuasion. And while cynics might say a point need only appear logically-sound to convince the majority, poorly-constructed arguments hurt credibility in the long run.

In the previous section, I pointed out the value of data-driven arguments. In addition to being used as proof in and of themselves, facts and statistics can form the building blocks of logical arguments. Take our example of the advocacy groups arguing against stronger patent protections for pharmaceuticals. With the right data, the government relations professionals working for these groups could create clear, comprehensive chains of reasoning to not only prove that the protections will lead to bad outcomes, but systematically refute the pharmaceutical companies’ counter claims (the argument that trade protections will incentivize innovation, for example).

 

Articulate:

In Lobbyists at Work a 2013 book on lobbying in the American context – former public affairs director and nonprofit founder Julie Stewart discusses her criteria for hiring lobbyists. “[O]ne of the main requirements is that he or she should be a good writer,” says Stewart. “Sadly, writing well is a skill that far too few people have these days.” English-speaking grammarians around the world would likely agree with this statement. But what does it mean to “write well” (or, for that matter, speak well)?

Eloquence and charm can be useful in a line of work that centers on personal relationships, but being easily understood is far more important. This, in essence, is what it means to be articulate. Whether you’re educating a government official on an important issue or helping an individual who is affected by it write testimony, the use of accurate, straightforward language will help you earn the trust of your audiences. Trust will, in turn, help you build credibility; and, as Aristotle noted, credibility (aka “ethos”) is one of the top modes of persuasion.

 

 

Tailored to your audience:

While the idea of aligning a message with the core beliefs of its audience is straightforward, its execution rarely is. GR professionals who are good at what they do take on the perspective of the individuals they’re lobbying as well as the groups they’re advocating for. A wide range of issues – including public perception and budgetary concerns – may need to be addressed in speeches and written materials.

Situations where GR professionals play a role in communicating policy issues to the general public present other challenges. How does one appeal to every group affected by a particular issue? This may be impossible, but tailoring a message so that it speaks to key stakeholders is not. Consider a recent American example related to the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act. Many who support the act – including some insurers – have focused on encouraging millenials to purchase health insurance. This is a good strategy, as insurance is likely to be a tough sell for a generally healthy and cash-strapped segment of the population. Ads like this one, created by Get Covered Illinois, use light-hearted humour and youthful imagery to appeal to millenials. But beneath the humour, there’s a stronger pull. The ad is a reminder that youth is no guarantee of health; as such, it appeals to the emotions of its target demographic. This makes it a prime example of the last of Aristotle’s modes of persuasion: pathos.

Of course, there may be a price for putting too much stock in pathos – manipulative messaging can alienate large segments of the population.

 

Timely: 

It goes without saying that, in the communications world, getting a message out too late is as bad as not getting it out at all. Similarly, speaking to government officials about a bill or piece of legislation that has already passed is fruitless. Due to time restrictions, those who hold positions that fall under the PR umbrella often find themselves sacrificing some degree of quality in their communications.

There’s no doubt that acting fast during a crisis is essential. But it’s important to strike a balance. Messaging that isn’t bolstered by the basic elements of persuasion will fail more often than not. Luckily, there are some steps that can be taken to ensure you’re efforts are both timely and informed.

First, be prepared. Having a repeatable process in place to deal with crises and other sudden events will result in less time spent strategizing when these events actually occur (which will, in many cases, mean more time to spend crafting your messages). Next, avoid multitasking. If you’re one of those GR professionals who watches Question Period while attending to their other work, you should be aware of the recent studies that link this kind of behaviour with low productivity. Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the usefulness of automated-monitoring technologies. In particular, those that alert users as soon as relevant government materials become available can help ensure timely action.

 

A Common Goal

Thanks to digital trends and technologies, the way we interact has changed significantly in recent years. However, while social media posts can generate a considerable amount of buzz, they’re not likely to make comprehensive arguments. This is why traditional forms of communication remain central to the relationship-building that occurs in the GR industry.

But GR is evolving, shifting towards more complex communications processes involving new audiences and collaborators. With regards to working with those in the PR industry, professionals on both sides should remember their joint communication goal – to help create a more receptive environment for their clients’ interests.

 

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