Six ideas that every PR professional should know

Pete Marcus

30 Apr 2014

For a book written by a Nobel Prize-winning economist, densely packed with ideas and reports of scientific studies, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow has been an incredible popular success.

I’m glad I read it, not just because it opened my eyes to the many flaws in how all of us think and reason – even while we tell ourselves that we are smart, rational beings – but because many of its fascinating concepts are directly applicable to our job in communications.

In particular, Thinking, Fast and Slow provides evidence to explain six big issues in PR that we’re often asked about. Here’s my short version, in case you haven’t got round to reading the book yourself:

1. Why consultancy is valuable

Kahneman’s key point in Thinking, Fast and Slow is very simple and he states it multiple times:

  • “The premise of this book is that it easier to recognise other people’s mistakes than our own”;
  • “An objective observer is more likely to detect our errors than we are”;
  • “The upshot is that it is much easier to identify a minefield when you observe others wandering into it than when you are about to do so. Observers are less cognitively busy and more open to information than actors.”

In other words, there’s a reason why people pay us as communications consultants: we can help spot possible pitfalls they are blind to, and give them advice they wouldn’t come up with themselves.

Human beings are terrible at judging their own experiences objectively, or forecasting their own success. This is why what Kahneman calls “the outside view” (as opposed to an individual’s own “inside view”) is so important, and so valuable.

2. Why stories are vital

Kahneman’s book is another piece of evidence to support that idea that people learn through stories, not statistics. Stories are incredibly powerful in making ideas come alive and making them memorable and persuasive. As Kahneman puts it: “You are more likely to learn something by finding surprises in your own behaviour than by hearing surprising facts about people in general.”

Taking this further, and quoting other scientists who noticed that their students didn’t believe the statistics of one experiment would actually apply to them, he says: “Subjects’ unwillingness to deduce the particular from the general was matched only by their willingness to infer the general from the particular.”

In other words, case studies and stories trump all, as people extrapolate from them into their own lives, but happily dismiss facts and stats out of hand.

Another aspect of this is the value of the “prototype” – the example that stands for multitudes. In one experiment, scientists asked people to say how much they’d pay to save birds affected by the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The scientists discovered that the quantities of birds affected didn’t matter – it was the prototype of the suffering bird they responded to. (In fact, the amount of money people were willing to donate actually decreased if scientists said 200,000 birds were affected, as opposed to 20,000. Seemingly the larger number felt too overwhelming for the donor to make a difference.)

3. Why sometimes “all publicity is good publicity”

Why does bad publicity sometimes lead to an increase in sales? Because of the “mere exposure effect” and because of “cognitive ease”.

Kahneman quotes a study that proved that people rate words seen several times before, even in foreign languages, more favourably than words they’ve seen only once or twice.

And: “You experience greater cognitive ease in perceiving a word you have seen earlier, and it is this sense of ease that gives you the impression of familiarity.”

If you’ve heard of a company, or can remember its name, on average you’re more likely to prefer it to a company you’ve never heard of.

4. Why brainstorms don’t always work

Kahneman has two brilliant suggestions for improving how we work (which apply to all industries really).

Firstly, avoid groupthink – the killer of all useful brainstorms. “The standard practice of open discussion gives too much weight to the opinions of those who speak early and assertively, causing others to line up behind them.” In other words, we should start brainstorms and meetings by asking for the opinion of the lowest paid person, not the most important.

Even better, to avoid groupthink bias, we need to change our standard procedure: “The proper way to elicit information from a group is not by starting with a public discussion but by confidentially collecting each person’s judgment.”

Secondly, hold pre-mortems. That is, before starting on a project, ask everyone to imagine that a year from now it has failed. Ask them to write a brief history of that disaster. What you learn from that pre-mortem should hopefully help you avoid having to hold a post-mortem.

5. Why campaigns for change are hard

Anyone who’s worked on a PR campaign that involves changing people’s behaviour, or changing their minds, will know how difficult it is. Why? Because of the endowment effect, which means people prefer sticking with what they already have, regardless of the benefits of change.

Humans are biased against action because it seems more risky than inaction: “People expect to have stronger emotional reactions (including regret) to an outcome that is produced by action than to the same outcome when it is produced by inaction.”

The threshold for persuasion is quite precise: “Losses are weighted about twice as much as gains in several contexts: choice between gambles, the endowment effect, and reactions to price changes.”

6. Why words really matter

Our job is fundamentally about words. The good news from Kahneman’s book is that words have astonishing power. They can literally change your behaviour without you realising it.

Asking a student to read a page of text about an old person, for instance, will then cause them to walk down the corridor fractionally more slowly than they would do normally. They have taken on the characteristics of the person they just read about. “This remarkable priming phenomenon – the influencing of an action by the idea – is known as the ideomotor effect.”

The ideomotor effect is another way of thinking about communications.

Kahneman also shows how simple messages improve persuasiveness: “If you care about being thought credible and intelligent, do not use complex language where simpler language will do… In addition to making your message simple, try to make it memorable. Put your ideas in verse if you can; they will be more likely to be taken as truth.”

Image: Flickr/Mark Larson