Have you ever wondered about why you think the way you do? Better still, do you know what this means in the context of how you influence others?

One of the understated benefits of a career is the fact there are new discoveries born through each transition as you grow. For me one of these discoveries has been my unexpected joy in taking on speaking engagements; assuming the responsibility of passing on the knowledge and experience I’ve gleaned over the years. It’s a new form of comms that I am relaxing in to as someone that has been around for a while now and is starting to sprout a few greys atop my head as proof.

While I was trained as a print journalist as an undergrad, this new platform and skill adds an extra dimension as a Comms Pro. So when I was asked to give a guest lecture for a group of Honors students at Western Sydney University I was pleased. It was a lovely compliment. The topic mooted was the role of critical thinking as it applies to public relations. Then it struck me, was it a backhanded compliment? After all PR folk do have a reputation for mastering the dark arts of smoke and mirrors – encouraging, but also dissuading critical thought… As I pondered the proposition I couldn’t help but admire what an astute observation it was though. While I’d never considered it in quite that way, isn’t this the crux of a Comms Pro?

A living experiment

The Honors program at Western Sydney University is really fantastic. It is hybrid by design and therefore includes students from a range of disciplines. As it aims to better prepare them for the real world, it purposefully combines different fields so students become accustomed to considering a variety of perspectives. The ultimate goal being they are ready to collaborate effectively on graduating.

Giving a lecture in this environment then makes for an interesting scenario as its a living experiment. Critical thinking revolves around the idea you need to understand bias, and in this one lecturer room there were many different predispositions at play. It was a fantastic exercise in the application of critical thinking in and of itself.

So, I figured why not start with an exercise. Let me try it out again here:

A man stands on one side of a river, his dog on the other. The man calls his dog, who immediately crosses the river without getting wet and without using a bridge or a boat. How did the dog do it?

I will tell you the answer at the bottom of this post, but my point in giving the riddle was to get people to understand how their environment and experience becomes the filter through which they view the world and solve problems.

Why does that matter?

I believe public relations when it’s distilled down is the transforming or affirming of a belief in the mind of an audience. To do this effectively therefore means having an affinity for the people you are speaking with – those you intend to influence and knowing what biases they have at the outset. Regardless of which brand, individual or organisation you work for, or their different challenges or objectives, when you boil it down it means drawing on one of two levers – getting someone to think critically, or act emotionally and you can’t do either without understanding bias. Here are the phases I find helpful in delivering on this understanding.

How to find an audience bias

It begins with understanding why they are people you need to engage in the first place. What is it that makes them important? When you know that, it’s about peeling back the layers as you would in any profile building exercise. Where are they from? How old are they? Who do they trust? Where do they consumer their information? How and when do they consume it? Do your homework – the more data you get, the better your analysis and insight.

How to make sense of this bias as a meaningful insight

Take these insights and overlay them. Play them off one another. When you combine a Category Insight with a Brand Insight, a Brand Insight with a Consumer Insight, and a Consumer Insight with a Category Insight you get a creative space that gives you a crucial point of leverage. This is a tried and tested way to arrive at the Relevance, Opportunity and Advantage. Below are a couple of examples that show both sides of the coin at work.

What PR looks like when it’s dissuading critical thinking

Take a look at this campaign. It’s a D&AD award winner – very clever, but exactly what I’m referring to. It plays on the knowledge that fresher is better (and healthier, as per their comms). The reality is though – from one minute to the next – is there meaningful truth to that? Have a look and you tell me.

What does this mean for a Comms Pro? When you dissuade critical thinking, remember you trade on other people’s trust (influencers, your peers, or the media):

  • You pay influencers your audience likes.
  • You leverage something your audience couldn’t help but share – humour and charitable causes serve you well as an example.
  • You tell a ‘good story’ (determined by the ‘drama’ of it)!

What PR looks like when it’s encouraging critical thinking

Take a look at this campaign. It’s also a D&AD award winner. This work is incredibly moving but so strategic. It shows how storytelling transcends the written word, but through an experience can be fused to it. See for yourself.

As a Comms Pro when you encourage critical thinking you make people feel uncomfortable so they have to validate their worldview:

  • You back it up with research.
  • You encourage debate.
  • You ask for the idea to be collaboratively developed – via an experience, gamification or interactivity.

*Finally the answer to the riddle: The river was frozen. So simple, but hidden unless you understand the bias of the audience.

Of course it doesn’t mean you didn’t answer the riddle straight away but the likelihood of you answering that question (quicker) if you were from Canada is much higher because that is a scenario far more familiar in that country than say in Australia. It’s a basic understanding with powerful implications and as a Comms Pro it makes everything you do more effective. Next time you are assessing which strategic lever you should pull in your campaign, try working through these stages and see where it leads you. I’ve found it a helpful way to ensure your work really delivers on its goals.