When the Storyteller Is More Important Than the Story

Guest post by corporate comms advisor Eric Schwartzman.

This is a guest post by Eric Schwartzman, founder of Comply Socially and senior corporate communications adviser.

If you’re trying to win hearts and minds in a contentious political environment–or customers in a competitive marketplace–what you say may not be as important as who says it.

The storyteller has become more important than the story.

Whether you’re selling policy or product, the public grows uncertain when influencers argue. If you’re trying to compel someone to act, uncertainty is your enemy; If you’re trying to bury a project, it’s your friend.

  • Uncertainty obstructs regulatory and legislative action.
  • Uncertainty obstructs purchasing decisions.

Consider this…

According to NASA, “Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities, and most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position.”

Yet nearly a quarter of Americans aren’t convinced climate change is real–and the higher their science comprehension, the more uncertain they are, according to research from professor Dan Kahan at Yale.

How did a handful of doubters armed with nothing more than speculation effectively undermine the peer-reviewed scientific evidence provided by the overwhelming majority of climate scientists?

The answer is simple–and it makes good sense.

People form assessments of risk that reflect their membership in specific affinity groups, Kahan says. (An affinity group is a group of people who hold similar worldviews.) The uncertain minority assumes that anyone with whom they agree with on such contentious issues as gay marriage, abortion, and gun control is level-headed and likely to interpret other difficult issues rationally.

Science comprehension becomes a culturally random variable because data remains relatively unimportant until it sways a given individual’s “affinity group members.”

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The facts don’t matter so much when we assess risk, because when it comes to complex issues, we don’t quite trust ourselves to process and appreciate all the details anyway. In short, we trust the experts who share our worldviews to provide the necessary context and analysis.

When it comes to winning hearts and minds in a polarized communications environment, scientific research doesn’t drive people to take action because our loyalty to our respective “tribes” comes first.

For these reasons, if your mission is winning hearts and minds in contentious environment, then your messenger is more important than your message.

Tobacco, oil and gas understand this well, as the new documentary Merchants of Doubt reveals. These industries finance research to cast doubt on the scientific findings of their opponents and use that doubt to obstruct regulatory action.

They know that attribution matters. To successfully cast doubt, they finance research to undermine climate science. Rather than deliver their message through industry spokespeople, they support the work of other scientists whose findings are designed to contradict those of top climate scientists. By delivering their messages through members of the same affinity group (academics), they’re able to disarm the public and cast doubt.

This equation works both ways. Those threatened by innovation inside a given enterprise can use doubt to sideline the adoption of new technologies, and some in enterprise sales use uncertainty, fear and doubt to compel a purchasing decision by highlighting the perceived risk of inaction.

In all these cases, doubt is a key strategic element.

Social media marketers communicating in a heated, contentious environment like this exclusively through their own branded Twitter and Facebook accounts are fighting an uphill battle, no matter how well they implement best practices.

Thinking Differently

Communicating through your own, branded social media accounts isn’t necessarily the wrong strategy–but it shouldn’t be your only strategy.

You need to enlist advocates from your opposition’s affinity group to tell your story, because they’re a more trusted source than you are. And if your external advocates belong to the wrong affinity group, winning those hearts and minds is going to be tough.

In the case of climate change, uncertain Americans–many of whom are distrustful of the government’s ability to effectively regulate anything as a matter of principle–rely on finding sources aligned with their affinity groups to carry the message.

These might be the voices of military commanders who’ve said publicly that climate change is a national security threat, farmers, hunters and fisherman who are seeing first hand the impact on harvests, game and fish populations, insurance industry representatives paying out substantial extreme weather claims, medical workers serving as first responders, and evangelical Christians who regard environmental stewardship as their duty to God.

These are the messengers most likely to win hearts and minds.

Overcoming doubt in a science communications environment that has become polluted with misinformation relies on telling your story through voices you’re your opposition understands and accepts.

The same is true in business.

It doesn’t matter how good your pitch is.  If your job is to overcome uncertainty and change hearts and minds, the messenger is important than the message.

eric schwartzmanEric Schwartzman is a senior corporate communications adviser to multinationals, multilaterals, global nonprofits, the military and federal government agencies.  He founded Comply Socially, used by staff at McKesson, HP, US Dept. of State and Discovery Education to harness the power of digital communications for advocacy, and iPressroom, a proprietary content management system used by nontechnical communications personnel at Target, UCLA, Yahoo! and Xerox to manage digital corporate communications efforts.