Why Cognitive Dissonance Is A Critical Media Strategy
Cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values. (source: Wikipedia)
I recently worked with a company that is frequently portrayed by the media as a “bad guy.” As a result of receiving some critical media coverage, the company’s executive team ordered a clampdown on external communications.
That means no more interviews. All interactions with the media occur solely through written statements. That way, the company figures, reporters will be unable to twist their quotes. By maintaining a paper trail, they feel safer and better protected.
There’s one problem with that approach: Their defensive posture results in media stories that contrast the company’s cold, lawyerly written statements with their opponents, who speak to the press, appear open, and look more sympathetic.
When working with the company’s representatives, I had an “A ha!” moment. I noticed that all of the spokespersons were smart, funny, and instantly likeable. Unfortunately, the public couldn’t see that for themselves, since their statements contained none of those things. But if they could—if the public could see that this company was made up of thoughtful people who were trying to serve their customers well—it could force them to change their thinking.
Think of it this way: A customer who thinks, “Oh, I hate that company. Their customer service sucks.” would believe that their beliefs were well founded when watching a news report that showed the company communicating solely through uninspired written statements.
But a customer who thinks, “Oh, I hate that company. Their customer service sucks.”— and who then sees a company vice president expressing sincere commitment to improving their service—might experience a bit of cognitive dissonance (“I thought they were jerks. I still don’t love them, but maybe they’re not as bad as I thought.”).
If your company is in a defensive crouch but has charismatic, credible, and thoughtful spokespersons, ask yourself this question: Would our interviews create cognitive dissonance for some members of the audience? And if they would, should we really depend solely on written statements to carry our message?
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Your advice is spot on. In my PR role, I often hear from angry customers. Many are pleasantly surprised that I even get back to them, that I am apologetic, and that I offer a plan to solve their problems. It completely changes their perception of us. I once worked for a pharmaceutical company whose business was at odds with animal rights activists. At one point, I suggested hosting a summit with some of those same activists to hear their concerns, share information, and begin being transparent. They stared at me like I was a pedophile. But I still maintain that it would have been a game changer, because it would have opened a dialog between two very oppositional groups. And we would have been the first (and only) such organization to do it. Also, I knew that our in-house vets and animal lab technicians loved the animals they worked with. The trouble was that nobody ever got to see that.