PR people have always known that the messenger can be as important as the message. That’s why they stress the value of messages communicated through third parties.
The power of the messenger has also been recognised by behavioural scientists. It’s one of the key elements of MINDSPACE, a behavioural tool developed for the UK government and used widely in public policy circles. It also forms part of SMARTER, the behavioural communications model developed at H+K Strategies.
So, what makes a good messenger?
When most PR work consisted of media relations, identifying the right messenger was as easy as finding the publication most widely read by a target audience and then picking out which spokesperson understood the subject matter best, most wanted publicity, or was most competent to speak with the media. But in a world where direct-to-audience communications has become the norm, how can messengers likeliest to influence audiences be identified?
Here are three key criteria from behavioural science that can help.
1. Figures of authority
Messengers who are perceived as credible and knowledgeable experts prove highly influential. However, an audience’s automatic and unconscious reactions often drive this perception. Just because a spokesperson is an authority doesn’t mean he or she will reach an audience.
For example, in Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini showed that physiotherapists are more successful at persuading patients to comply with exercise programmes if they display their medical diploma on an office or consultation room wall than if they don’t. Other research has shown that simply adding trivial charts to advertisements or brain images to scientific papers can make them more believable and persuasive than they otherwise would be.
As communicators we therefore need to ask two questions: What spokesperson would have the most natural authority in the communications context? And what cues or signals can be employed to boost a spokesperson’s authority in a target audience’s mind?
2. Someone like me
Messengers who share similar values, attitudes, and characteristics with a target audience are often more powerful than are authority figures.
The UK’s Royal Society for Public Health surprised many last year when it published a report calling for 15 million workers — including firemen, hairdressers, and postal workers — both to be trained in communicating health issues and to form part of a public health workforce. Sound evidence supports this suggestion. The Braids Not AIDS initiative in Zimbabwe, for instance, successfully increased usage of female condoms among Zimbabwean women when trained local hairdressers acted as messengers in low-income areas.
The key question then becomes: Who would a target audience consider to be "someone like me"?
3. Someone I like
Finally, there is often a clear link between likability and trust. We prefer to say yes to people who cooperate with us and pay us compliments. We are likely to ignore information if it comes from someone whom we dislike.
We therefore either need to identify a messenger who is already liked by the audience or find a way of enabling a messenger to do something that makes him or her likable before communicating a message. This might be as simple as expressing sympathy with or saying something nice about the audience.
These three criteria are clearly not mutually exclusive and successful messengers can often count on having or seeming to be more than one. Finding a messenger that combines all three is very powerful, indeed.
Matt Battersby is MD of H+K Smarter, Hill + Knowlton Strategies’ behavioural insights and strategies team.