Your PR Effort May Not Be Changing Anyone’s Mind

Dorian Cundick
Dorian Cundick

The PR messages we’re pumping out (no matter how stakeholder-centric or compelling in nature) are not going to change anyone’s mind unless they follow some essential rules of psychology. All the stakeholder perceptions that we try to change are but glimpses of what lie below the surface—the various and sundry mental models that form the basis for how each one of us views the world. These models are the constructs we use to make sense of life. If we are ever to engage our stakeholders in a meaningful meeting of the minds, we have to have a better idea of their mental models—what they’re comprised of and where we have an opportunity to change them in our organization’s favor.

There are two big things to remember when trying to change someone’s mind:

• First, even the most compelling message will fail to change someone’s perception unless it’s also processed.

• Second, even a message that is processed won’t change anyone’s perception unless it directly challenges the basis of the person’s existing perception.

Science gives us some big red buttons to push to overcome these syndromes. Think of them as a Messaging Trifecta—if we want to actually change someone’s mind, we need to push these three components:

Convince them your message is worth thinking about. Processing information is a very personal activity, one that involves sliding information out of short-term memory and landing it squarely in the hippocampus, where new mental models are formed.

Sadly, we have very little control over another’s hippocampus, so we must motivate someone to decide to do the cerebral work themselves.

There is a big difference between passively scanning the entertainment headlines compared with trying to synthesize key points from five academic articles to present to your boss.

We are not naturally wired to want to think harder than we have to, so if we’re going to get our audience to voluntarily burn some blood glucose in consideration of the message, we better have a way to catch attention and interest with a message that resonates on a very deep emotional level; one that addresses identity, outcomes that matter or the way the reader wants others to perceive her.

Make it easy to think about. How dedicated would your average stakeholder have to be in order to actually be exposed to the essential elements of your message? CEB research finds that the critical components of our messages are broken up between different channels.

Tell them something they hadn’t considered. If we manage to motivate people to expend their energy necessary to process our message, it still won’t effectively alter their mental model unless our message can go toe-to-toe with their existing perception.

There are a few ways to ensure that our argument beats their existing argument. When we better understand how they view the world and the assumptions and associations they’re making, then we can step in and look for opportunities.

We may be able to punch holes in their existing model by introducing facts they were unaware of or had underappreciated.

We may be able to show them how the relationships between certain elements of their argument are a little off. For instance, let’s say we’re trying to help productivity at our organization by trying to motivate employees to do more peer coaching.

Our employees’ mental models may recognize that peer coaching is a great idea for other people—those more socially active people who find it a rewarding use of their time.

So to challenge that mental model, we may choose to emphasize how employees who engage in peer coaching actually perform better, express greater job satisfaction, receive meaningful recognition from peers and supervisors, or possibly even get bigger bonuses because their team produces better overall results.

There are so many things we do in communications that have to rely on gut check or the stars aligning correctly. Changing someone’s mind is not one of them.

This is about people’s brains, how they think, what needs to happen for their mental model to shift or break and form into a version we prefer.


Dorian Cundick is an executive advisor at CEB. Follow her and CEB’s insights at @CEB_News.

This article originally appeared in the October 6, 2014 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.