City & Corporate: The PR industry often denies it, but superficial indicators count

Messengers matter more in a networked world; understanding an influential spokesperson's qualities is essential for effective corporate communication.

There are ways leaders can adapt to be more effective messengers, says Nick Barron
There are ways leaders can adapt to be more effective messengers, says Nick Barron

While the role of influencers dominates the consumer marketing industry conversation, corporate communicators devote far less time to understanding which voices are most persuasive.

A new book, Messengers, by psychologists Stephen Martin and Joseph Marks (one of MHP’s Networked Age research partners), is a crucial reminder that the messenger is as important as the message. As digital networks have made peer-to-peer communication more powerful, not only has the messenger become more important, but the combination of qualities effective messengers employ has changed too.

The authors offer a framework for evaluating effective messengers – eight characteristics they cultivate, split between ‘hard’ domains (such as competence) and ‘soft’ ones (such as charisma). But one of the book’s key lessons is something the PR industry often prefers to deny: superficial indicators count.

Charisma has a lot to do with how much you move your hands (popular TED Talkers use twice as many hand gestures as less-successful ones). To look competent, wear a suit; to project dominance, put lifts in your shoes. Research has shown people can predict winning politicians and identify top CEOs with high levels of accuracy by picking the most ‘competent-looking’ faces. So, tailors, personal trainers and cosmetic surgeons have as much to offer CEOs as comms consultants do. But there are ways leaders can adapt to be more effective messengers.

First, communicate proactively. Fame confers social status, acts as a proxy for trustworthiness and makes it harder for opponents to dehumanise you. A familiar face and consistent corporate narrative insure against reputational risk. Regular positive interaction with your audiences builds trust.

Second, forge a connection with your audiences. Feeling connected to a subject makes us predisposed to give messengers a fair hearing. Purpose, transparency and personal storytelling are all effective ways to forge stronger connections.

Third, act like a challenger, not an established leader. The challenger’s combination of ambition and vulnerability strikes the perfect balance between the hard and soft domains. Challengers are near the top of the socio-economic pecking order, but their success is more easily understood as the result of hard work – which prevents them being seen as illegitimate.

Importantly, the challenger narrative also plays to audiences’ bias toward ‘potential’ over ‘accomplishment’. Experiments have shown that people, from customers to recruiters, prefer a pretender’s promise to an incumbent’s achievements.

The ‘challenger’ strategy is available to any leader – even Google’s leaders, entrepreneur Peter Thiel argues, pulled it off by redefining its category as the total advertising universe, where it was an insurgent force. Nike frames itself as a perennial challenger, picking cultural battles to boost its credentials.

Best of all, challengers have the most interesting stories to tell – about high-stakes battles and building a better world. They aren’t just great messengers, they also have a great message.

Nick Barron is deputy chief executive of MHP Communications

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