Top Disruptors Impacting Public Affairs

20 Mar, 2017


Top Disruptors Impacting Public Affairs

May 2017

And, more important, what we can do about them
(Part 1 of 2 in our Disruptors series)

Sheree Anne Kelly
Senior Vice President, Public Affairs Council

How do we define this “new” normal? And how can we best operate during uncertain times? Those are questions we’ve heard frequently in recent months, and ones to which we’ve given a lot of consideration. Here are the biggest disruptors I see impacting the public affairs profession and some thoughts on how to deal with them.

Disruptor #1: Millennials

Before I get hate mail:

  1. I’m not saying millennials are disruptive, and
  2. I know this generation has been overanalyzed for years, and many of you don’t want to talk about them anymore.

Hear me out. The real disruptive impact is that many public affairs professionals have not adjusted their strategies or tactics to actually reach, influence and engage the largest generation in our history. While you can’t make sweeping generalizations about this group, you also can’t deny that it is becoming a critical and substantial audience for your public affairs efforts. Millennials are serving as legislative or regulatory staff, increasingly taking office as policymakers and holding positions in media or as online influencers. Plus they are potential advocates, customers and employees.

And, like it or not, millennials don’t process information and feelings the way their parents did when they were young. In fact, all of us now have attention spans less than that of a goldfish. Goldfish have nine seconds; humans, eight. While this isn’t just an issue with millennials, young adults who grew up around smartphones have a shorter attention span than, say, a baby boomer.

How do you make a compelling public affairs case in eight seconds or less?

Use what science tells us. We retain only 30 percent of the material we read, but retain 80 percent of visual material. Plus, our brains process images 60,000 times faster than text. Countless other research points to the value of storytelling for persuasion. Combining those two powerful tools gives us one way to find success engaging millennials — using visual storytelling.

Boiling your advocacy story down to its smallest visual component — whether an image, a short video or an infographic — can capture your audience’s attention while delivering content that resonates. As noted in Descartes’ Error by Antonio Damasio, emotions and not facts guide human decision-making, and stories are really effective at hooking people emotionally.

The Foundation for Public Affairs launched a website in 2016 that does a deep dive into this phenomenon. The Public Affairs Trend Lab offers many case studies of successful visual storytelling for advocacy, explains the science behind the concept and provides tips for crafting your own visual stories.

Use what science tells us. We retain only 30 percent of the material we read, but retain 80 percent of visual material. Plus, our brains process images 60,000 times faster than text.

In addition, other research tells us that millennials care about brand reputation, corporate citizenship and authenticity of message. They want to be swept up in causes in which they can make a difference. Messages that speak to those traits will have impact. Finally, messages need to be communicated in places where your intended audience gets its information — such as social platforms, blogs, text messaging or other frequented channels.

Disruptor #2: Low Trust in Big Institutions

We’re facing record levels of anti-institution sentiment. The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, an online survey conducted in 28 countries, shows declining public trust worldwide for the four major institutions of government, media, business and nongovernmental organizations. But trust in many other institutions is low as well. Research used to have credibility if it received a stamp of approval from the National Science Foundation or some other reputable entity, but that’s not enough to win over many people anymore.

So are we doomed as spokespeople for our big institutions, since no one will trust our messages?

Are we living in a post-fact world in which science and data can’t be trusted, and therefore can’t be used?

Not exactly. For one, see visual storytelling content under Disruptor #1 as one approach to delivering persuasive messages. But there’s hope elsewhere as well. You see, the news isn’t so bad for messengers working for businesses. The Edelman Trust Barometer also segments its data by people who believe the system is working, believe it’s not working or are uncertain. For citizens who aren’t sure about the system’s effectiveness, business is the most trusted institution among the big four. And for those who think the system works or doesn’t, business is the second-most trusted institution. Those are promising statistics for business communicators.

How else can we build trust? Authenticity counts with almost every audience. So do the messengers delivering — and heroes of — your stories. People listen to and trust their peers. According to the Trust Barometer’s findings, rank-and-file employees are far more trusted as a source of information than CEOs. In fact, the Public Affairs Pulse has found that Americans believe a person’s ethics and trustworthiness actually decline as he or she moves up the corporate ladder.

This isn’t a surprise to those of us who regularly run grassroots campaigns in which employees communicate with internal and external stakeholders. Here are two good reminders for public affairs in an anti-institution world:

  1. We need to humanize both our organizations and the issues we’re talking about. Use human faces, and human stories, to power your work.
  2. Peers are trusted validators. Where possible, highlight peer support of your cause and share testimonials to highlight real-world impact from “people like me.”

In the April edition of Impact, I’ll cover disruptors 3 through 5: political unpredictability, a noisy environment and public pressure for corporate engagement on social issues. What other disruptors (and/or solutions) are you seeing? I’d love to hear your views.

Contact Sheree Anne Kelly, senior vice president.

Additional Resources

Want to hear Sheree Anne discussing the top political disruptors? Check out video files from the February 2017 issue of Impact.