You’re not as open minded as you think and here’s why you don’t believe me
By Consultant Trent Swindells
Working in PR and communications means learning to accept failure.
I’m not talking about how my mother wishes I’d gone into medical school. What I mean is that anyone working in communications must understand what it means to engage with that mysterious, fickle and demanding beast known as ‘the public’.
Some still see communication as a one-way transmission by which you can miraculously have every single person listen and accept your message, with minimum debate. Certainly, this is the approach taken by the North Korean government.
But when was the last time you found a topic on which absolutely everybody agreed? Whether it’s Tony Abbot’s Prime Ministership, fox eradication, who built the pyramids, or if Coke really is better than Pepsi – the diversity of human opinion is as true across the Australian electorate as it is in your office or with your customers.
So when you’re trying to broadcast your messages, you have to not everybody is going to believe you and possibly never will. In fact, this is part of an underlying fundamental truth about human nature.
We are social creatures and this drives us to congregate in tribes where our perceptions and prejudices are accepted and reinforced by those around us. We look for places to belong, like the Flat-Earthers Society.
This is especially true on the internet, where we ‘like’ and ‘follow’ those whose opinions give us comfort and our own sense of conviction.
In psychology and neuroscience circles, the phenomenon of ‘motivated reasoning’ explains how our pre-existing beliefs skew the acceptance of new information. Put simply, our thinking is coloured by our feelings and these are far more powerful agents than conscious reasoning, deduction or logic. We are far from the logical creatures we often idealise ourselves to be.
This actually makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. If a shadow on the savannah might be a lion getting ready to pounce, it’s much better to immediately apply our fight-or-flight reflexes, than to stand there waiting for conclusive evidence of a lion, like being eaten.
So even after being presented with objective scientific evidence, our pre-existing beliefs create subconscious negative responses to new information not aligned with those beliefs. We may think that we are reasoning through evidence, but we’re merely rationalising new information to reach a predetermined end.
This is why the reaction to such issues as climate change, childhood vaccination or local council amalgamation can be so vociferous. Sometimes, it’s just impossible to change a person’s mind.
This doesn’t mean that all communications are doomed to failure, but it does mean that we have to learn to respect our opponents and the sense of conviction people bring to their pre-existing beliefs. Nobody likes being told they are wrong, so a good PR firm can help you engage with an audience in a way that doesn’t trigger a defensive, emotional response.
It is also essential that any messages you’re delivering are completely truthful and transparent, because anything less will only justify your opponent’s stance.
Communicators should look for a way of setting their argument within a context that people will understand. This might mean choosing the right spokesperson, admitting past failures, acknowledging concerns and coming to an understanding of the values shared between all the sides of a debate.
And you can start by simply being polite to your opponents, even when you know you’re right. And you know you’re right, don’t you?