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Why PR Should Focus on Emotion

Facts are important, but to win consumers over, you must appeal to their emotions. That means meeting them where they are and opening the door for more authentic conversations.

Hailed by many as 2017’s best ad to date, State Street Global Advisors’ “Fearless Girl” promotion featured a statue of a girl staring down Wall Street’s well-known “Charging Bull” statue. The image served as a potent, emotional reminder of what women executives face, and it did its job in both promoting SSGA’s Gender Diversity Index Fund and its desire to see more women appointed to corporate boards.

The emotional appeal spurred feelings of both empowerment and negativity.
Of course, even with emotional appeals, it’s imperative to be honest: You never want to lie to consumers.

You must also recognize that spewing facts and figures won’t get you far. Facts can be hard to understand. They often rely on jargon or lack the proper context for anyone unfamiliar with the topic.

Beyond that, facts can be difficult to remember. Companies have a bad habit of throwing around lots of different facts, rather than supporting the most compelling one for their brands. Being bombarded with facts (especially when they contradict a person’s beliefs or understanding of a topic) makes consumers feel they’re being told they’re wrong, so they shut down and stop listening.

When you appeal to people’s emotions first, you open the door for an authentic conversation. Instead of arguing your case, you create a dialogue.

Facts are easy; something is either true or false. Emotions, on the other hand, are tricky. There are many appropriate and effective ways to engage audiences emotionally, but selecting the best approach should depend on the situation.

If your audience feels wronged, hurt or threatened, the knee-jerk reaction is often to reject those concerns. If you validate the concerns before explaining your position, your message is much more likely to resonate. Affirming your audience’s feelings doesn’t mean you’re admitting wrongdoing. It took time for one brand to pull this off, but after crafting an effective marketing campaign and making serious changes to its practices, SeaWorld came out the other side.

In 2013, the scathing documentary “Blackfish” exposed the dark underbelly of SeaWorld to the masses, highlighting the theme park’s poor treatment of killer whales. The backlash was immediate. Two years after the film’s release, the theme park still experienced a hefty drop in attendance, negative headlines, social media trolling and celebrity criticism.

SeaWorld scrambled to reverse the public’s concerns, dropping $10 million on a marketing campaign intended to shift the focus from its captive orcas to its adoption of animal-friendly ways. Fast-forward to 2017, and the theme park now partners with the Humane Society of the United States and has virtually reversed its captivity breeding practices.

Acknowledging consumers’ right to more information and accepting responsibility in developing a solution are effective tactics for validating concerns and opening a dialogue.

If people are concerned your company is acting in its own interests, cite shared goals or values. Start with the phrase, “We can all agree that X is an important priority.” That language tells people that you hear them and are on the same page. It forges a connection and gets them nodding in agreement. Suddenly, they’re willing to listen to what you’ll say next.

Use language that connects emotionally first; you can then share facts or points of view that might differ from what people are likely to believe or have heard.

Rethinking the playbook

You have to ditch the old way of doing things before you can craft emotionally resonant messaging.

Start with message testing: Traditionally, you’d ask participants to rank statements, forcing them to choose a favorite. This doesn’t mirror how consumers encounter information in the real world. Instead, show respondents a single message, and measure their emotional response.

Find the intersection of what your audience is talking about and the messages you want to get across.

Say consumers express concerns that the methods a company uses to grow food could be unsafe. In response, the company talks about how those methods make food more affordable. See the problem? They’re talking past each other, and the company comes across as evasive and dishonest. It’s vital to engage in the same conversation your consumers are having and address concerns head on.

Uber’s handling of sexual assault allegations, for instance, highlights the need to directly address concerns. CEO Travis Kalanick responded to the allegations by calling them “abhorrent and against everything we believe in.” He then hired former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate and apologized for the company’s culture during an emotional staff meeting.

Once you’ve uncovered what consumers are talking about, you should give them a reason to listen to you. For decades, Nike has been pulling this off. With the suggestion that Nike isn’t just a brand, but also a lifestyle, the sports apparel company grabs its audience’s attention by homing in on a single message, one it’s been using effectively for 30 years: “Just Do It.” It doesn’t bog its audience down with multiple messages.

Too many messages simply try to do too much. With one idea, your audience members will not only respond, but also remember.

Bad messaging feels like getting something off your chest or setting the record straight. If that sounds familiar, make room in your strategy for emotions. Acknowledge where the customer is and what role he thinks you should play. Leave your company’s ego at the door so you can stop arguing and start connecting.

Lee Carter is the president and partner of maslansky + partners. He is also a polling expert for media outlets and a frequent commentator on Fox News.