Tuesday, January 6, 2015

What really motivates you?

Updated Jan. 19 with link to news article on similar topic (below)
Public relations is often tasked with trying to influence behavior.  Many of us work from experience to develop a plan that we believe will move the needle.  We also use research, focus groups and the occasional fortune teller.

Yet, lately, it seems we are guessing wrong.

There are dynamics and influences that could provide us significant help that we're simply not discovering. A well developed plan will get upset or, worse, create some backlash. Understanding the "public" so we can create beneficial "relations" with them is getting more challenging.

Today, it seems, the answers to a successful strategy are popping up in unusual places. We need to rethink our original notions about what influences behavior.

Here is a case in point.

A recent NPR story highlighted a study that showed when gas prices drop, traffic fatalities go up. They study accurately pinpointed a specific number of deaths by every so many cents of decline at the pump. Gas prices were the only cause for the rise in fatalities.

Once you hear the reasons, it's a no-brainer to figure out how this applies to public relations.

Millions of dollars are spent annually on safe-driving campaigns. In high school, teachers and cops try to scare the hell out of us. We are given all sorts of information - in a very direct fashion - about safe driving. Some of us get traffic tickets for speeding, go to traffic school, then after a few months, start speeding again.

But as the study points out, scaring us doesn't cause us to drive safer - it's higher gas prices.

Why?  When gas goes up, our behavior is focusing on "saving" gas.  You accelerate slower and keep a steady pace because those things save gas. Those multiple trips we take when prices are lower are now combined into a single trip because we have to "save gas."

The "prompt" here is not information, but our pocketbook. The social conscious is wired toward financial, not personal safety or the safety of others...or that cop I just passed going 45 in a 25.

Granted, a percentage of the population will be influenced by a steady stream of information or graphic images. The masses, however, will change behavior because of price.

In California, we saw the influence of money and how it impacted behavior when it comes to saving water.  In the first half of 2014, water agencies up and down the state were pleading with customers to conserve because of a very serious drought. However, it was not until the state water agency said it would begin fining people up to $500 a day for wasting water did California begin to see huge drops in water usage. The threat of a financial penalty "woke up" the masses to take action.

What does this mean for PR, branding and communications campaigns?

Overkill.  Consumer behavior can be "conditioned" to tune out a message that has been told over and over in nearly the same fashion.  "Yeah, yeah. I know I have to (save water) (replace my light bulbs with LED ones) (drive slower)."

An unlikely prompt.  Focus groups and consumer research need to be turned on their head. We don't need to waste precious dollars asking variations of the same message, or a participant's "views" about a social issue. Look at their behavior for something totally unrelated to your cause or product and ask them the off-beat question.  An probe of the indirect may reveal the motivating factor perfectly suited for your campaign.

It's not always comedy.  Too often, we dive into pop culture to put an 'edge' to our campaigns, draw a laugh. We mistakenly believe this will help capture their attention and 'cut through the clutter' and 'noise' of all the information that surrounds us today.  OK. So you got their attention. Now what?

Avoid the "ask."  Historically, we've been told to make sure we have "an ask" to ensure consumers are prompted into action. Advertisers and marketers are still successful in making people "feel good" about a product because I, too, want to drive off into the wilderness in my Jeep or re-acquaint myself with a Reese's peanut butter cup. Behavior change through association with a positive, reinforcing images and concepts can be achieved in a public relations format.

The best channel.  I came across a public utility representative, frustrated by a seemingly excellent communications plan to inform customers they were moving their office. For months, utility customers received notices in the mail, saw multiple signs posted in the lobby.  The utility issued a news release, put a story in the city's quarterly magazine, took out full-page advertisements in the local newspaper. Still, hundreds of customers complained they never heard about the move and were upset about having to drive to a new location after seeing the "we've moved" sign at the old one. Was the utility showing up "where" customers would notice? Today, it's about showing up in unexpected places.  In this case, the utility may have considered placing notices in local grocery shopping bags. We all need food. For some of us, that's a daily trip.

As we see from the gas price-fatality scenario, one doesn't need to seek an "ask" to secure behavior change.

We just need to tap into the human psyche a bit deeper.

Today, the LA Times published a report from "environmental economists" at UCLA about what motivates people to save energy. Again - not what we think it would be.  Note, however, that the UCLA study is focused on a limited demographic.  From my experience, these kinds of findings are usually difficult to extrapolate to the general population. 

Monday, December 1, 2014

What climate change can teach PR

In the age of Big Data and ultra-precise targeting, "knowing" your audiences is much more than simply understanding their buying habits and which mobile apps are on their phone.

It seems politics and science also enter the equation.

Note the great article by Geoff Mohan (@LATsciguy) in the LA Times about a recent study on what is influencing our opinions and views about climate change. 

While climate change has been greatly debated, and many believe the "doubters" are losing, the article only points out that views may be becoming "harder" or "un-movable." Middle ground is evaporating and facts becoming obsolete. 

The PR take-away?

Swaying public opinion - at least for "causes" - may become more difficult.  New tactics and strategies will emerge in attempts to overcome a populace that has essentially closed its door and is not letting anyone in their house to talk to them. 

Do we truly live in a land of "I'm not changing my mind: Ever, ever, ever." ?

Hardly.

Political and public affairs veterans will likely emerge with winning strategies that could have cross-over use in traditional public relations campaigns and programs.

We should take a PA guy or gal for lunch once in a while.

How we change minds will likely change.  The path for a consumer campaign may require a political "tone" if you are, say, trying to convince a mostly GOP audience that Brand X car is right for you and America because, for instance, it was built without government help.

The danger in all this?  Further polarization of audiences.  Ticking off one group in the quest to improve relations with another.

Research will remain invaluable, but the smart money is on killer strategies that continue building loyalties across even more and further entrenched audience segments.

 

Monday, October 27, 2014

Why Millennials Matter to PR

A recent article in The Atlantic provided some very revealing and potentially upsetting trends regarding Millennials and their contributions to our economy.

For PR professionals, understanding these trends and dynamics are critical.

One thing we all know and is obviously pointed out in this article - mobile is the most effective, if not the ONLY way to reach this audience.

Decisions, actions and conversations all occur in the device in someone's palm.

But consider other key trends in this article.

Experts said Millennials are more likely to "visit" friends online, rather than travel. (Hence, why there is less need for a car).

In addition to the obvious and stated impacts on automakers, a lack of casual travelling by automobile means:

  • Less stops at a gas station, which means fewer opportunities to use these locations as marketing tools.  "GasTV" infomercials at the pump should focus on older populations. When a "road trip" was involved for the prior generation, the first stop was for gas and supplies at the same location.  Gas station owners will now need to find how to compete against the convenient and trendy wine store down the street and in closer walking distance to the restaurants and residence in a city's core. A higher percentage of gas stations are deliberately set far from retail and restaurant centers.
  • The same for highway billboards. Unless, however, a billboard campaign is aimed at a social cause and then all you need to do is post a hashtag on that space and be done with it.
  • Mobile driving apps. Google and Waze are basic tools to navigate from Point A to Point B, but any other app that tries to give you on-the-go voice updates for your email, text messages, etc. may not be useful.  Besides, Millennials only respond to text messages. They are not answering voice mail.
  • Changing from "overnight" opportunity at a nearby staycation destination to a "day trip" mode is probably in order. Solution: Incentivize these kind of trips with carpools sponsored by Zipcars.
Let's keep monitoring this generation.  Adaptation is key to surviving this new PR jungle.









Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Fixing a break

Utilities are one sector of the U.S. economy that seem to constantly struggle with reputation.  Service interruptions. Rate hikes. Allegations of over-paid workers.

Is reputation maintenance a losing battle?
LATimes: The broken water main near UCLA

Because they provide much-needed services to, well, almost all of us (there are those who are "off the grid"), utilities are constantly on consumer's mind.  We scrutinize our water and power bills on a regular basis. We need trained workers to turn on our natural gas if the service is interrupted.  If we don't pay for these services, these utilities will shut them. If a supply interruption occurs somewhere else in the world, the shortage means higher fuel costs in winter.

Then utilities get hit by a catastrophe.  Storms knock down power lines. And, as was the case this week in Los Angeles, underground pipelines rupture.

Havoc ensues, and the no-win game of perception vs. reality begins.  The news media feeding frenzy begins. Leadership is questioned. 

This week, a 3-foot-diameter water main ruptured under a major thoroughfare. Before it could be turned off, an ocean of water flowed into the nearby UCLA campus and flooded buildings, a revered basketball stadium and parking lots.

Within the first hour of the rupture, the city water utility came under instant attack from local talk radio stations and from other news media for the perceived slow response of utility crews.  Reasonable explanations were not believed.  Snarky attacks came from all corners.

Why? There are two possible answers.

1.  Studies are showing a disturbing trend:  Utility reputation continues to erode, in part by rising rates and bigger profits.
2.  Expectation.  In today's speedy world - from instant access to information to online shopping - consumer patience is razor thin.  The "assumption rate" that solutions can instantly appear is rising at exponential rate.

Utilities need the trust of their customers - if only to reduce the rancor when rate hikes are proposed, or in the case of publicly held companies, to prevent stockholder revolt.

Large municipal-run utilities such as the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power have been on the defensive for decades. (In the case of LADWP, one can start with its rough beginning - aka "Chinatown" - and look to today with customers receiving $5,000 water bills because of glitches with its new computer program).

Authenticity Gap

They do try to make things better. 

Utilities do make some attempts at building trust and reputation - through community programs, improved customer service, etc.  But these small efforts do not build the necessary foundation to create wholesale swings in sentiment.

As Richard Mullinax at FleishmanHillard and others have pointed out, utilities must focus their reputation-building efforts at those areas in their operations and overall "presence" with the biggest authenticity gaps, and not spend any more time in areas where they have earned success.   

Understanding the gap begins with research.  In my experience in working with and for utilities, many assume they know their customers (because they deal with them every day). But those who have conducted attitude research invariably find underlying sentiments they never new existed.  What research usually shows is that a visible action or negative response from a customer may have been fostered or created from an entirely different issue - and may have been festering for some time.   


Strategic public relations is all about understanding the audience, and developing a comprehensive plan to reach these audiences in the way they want to hear you. 



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