Opinion: Decoding biases - how PR pros can make sense of irrationality in daily decisions

The Hoffman Agency's Vylvianne Devajothi on how positioning and messaging can overcome irrationality

Vylvianne Devajothi

We’d all like to think that we’re rational human beings.

In actual fact, we are prone to hundreds of proven cognitive biases that cause us to think and act irrationally in our daily lives. These biases work quietly behind the scenes, shaping how we view the world.

If there’s anything we do daily as PR professionals, it’s the constant sharing of information – be it to media folks or our key audiences – in the hopes of communicating our key messages and building our brand.

But when the human brain has an entire toolkit of ways it processes information that makes each person see things a little differently and sometimes, rather irrationally – it gets a little trickier for us to win at our game.

Never mind the technical psychology terminology, how then can PR professionals make the best of the biases that frame our audience’s decisions and understanding of the world to be more effective?

Understanding the need for confirmation

As much as we’d like to think of ourselves as analytical, decisions are often based on how they make us feel. Furthermore, having beliefs so often set in stone, we fall prey to a confirmation bias with the tendency to listen only to the information that supports our preconceptions.

It becomes especially crucial for PR professionals to be able to understand their audience’s quirks and a gist of their existing preconceptions. These go hand in hand with understanding homophily – the idea that we crave and seek tribes.

In trying to change the behaviours or thoughts of our audience, it is crucial that "bad behaviour" is not pointed out. Instead, our audience should know that their tribe is already carrying out the desired behaviour to affect change.

It is also best to stay away from hard, factual data, which seeks to strengthen existing beliefs, even if the factual data proves against it – simply because confirmation bias comes into play once again.

Instead, the following two strategies can prove to be more meaningful and effective through emotional engagement.

All about the positioning

It’s not surprising that we tend to immediately gravitate towards and focus on the most easily recognisable features of a person or concept – also better termed as saliency. When applied to business, our audience may forget exact details, products or campaigns that are continually pushed out.

But if there is a salient familiarity that is tied closely to the brand – be it a strong spokesperson or solid key message, all of these encourage feelings of familiarity and identification and help to associate with the brand more quickly, and more strongly.

This can be better combined with the halo effect – where one positive attribute of someone or a brand is associated with everything else about the subject – and used in the most effective manner possible. Associating one’s organisation or brand with strong, likeable and trustworthy corporate characters and personalities encourages recognition, identification and emotional association that audiences immediately draw in relation towards the brand.

While this could definitely go both ways to become a bane or a boon, we could consider the very reason that influencers are used successfully in a PR campaign is mainly because of the halo effect. Nevertheless, PR professionals need to take heed of being over reliant on any one face to ensure the longevity and continuity of the brand’s success.

Framing the message well

When presented with a particular choice, we react to it in different ways, depending on whether a specific option is presented as positive or negative – this is the process of framing.

Since we feel bad experiences a lot more intensely than good experiences, losses are felt more strongly than gains. Due to a loss aversion bias, the fear of loss is more motivating that the potential for gain – manifesting itself in our actions and decision-making process.

Imagine how this simple principle could have profound effects on our messaging. With the aim of persuasion, many a times we focus on the benefits, with rare mentions of loss. Now, with the power of negative framing, is there an alternate approach that emphasizes what could be lost (or not gained) in our outreach to stakeholders or in pitches to the media?

Ultimately, understanding not only human behaviour, but why we’re wired the way we are, can go a long way in creating effective messaging and strategic communications. Taking these biases into consideration is something that we would do well to leverage on for greater effectiveness in the long run.

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