Even the most suspicious people, those who claim they don’t believe anything they see in the media, actually believe almost everything …if the story appears “believable” to them.
Believability is hugely subjective and can be influenced. In crisis communications, we must ensure that the truth is more believable than the narratives of ignorance or “campaigning” which other parties may promote.
The world is sufficiently complicated that we cannot possibly scrutinise every bit of information, but how do people decide what to believe and what to be suspicious about?
It’s rarely a conscious choice, but rather one which depends on some degree of instinct, the psychology of which can be understood with reference to two key variables:
1. Ingroup relationships. Social identity theory (https://www.navigateresponse.com/news/its-all-just-talk-the-power-of-connection) tells us that we are more likely to believe (and respect) those people who are like us – our ingroup. For example, Brits are more likely to trust the BBC, while Americans may trust CNN, and at the extremes, North Korean’s may believe the news from their state broadcaster.
Strategic take away: To influence an audience, find ways to make yourself seem more like that audience (language, age, gender, cultural reference points, shared experiences, etc.) and communicate through a channel that is close to them or one that they trust – this is partly why local publications are so important in a crisis.
2. Preconceptions of the world. No matter how open minded we pride ourselves on being, we all have preconceptions about what is, and is not, believable. Such preconceptions can be very general (e.g. “people are lazy”), can apply to specific groups of people (e.g. “Canadians are very polite”) or can apply to an individual (e.g. “everything Donald Trump says is a lie”).
Strategic take away: No matter the truth of any situation, there are somethings which will be believable to an audience and others which will not. A successful communications strategy depends on making the truth (or more sinisterly a lie) believable to an audience, and to do this we must understand how the target audience perceives the situation.
For example, let’s imagine that our audience believes that “oil companies don’t care about polluting the environment; they only care about profit.” If we tell them that “oil company X prioritises environmental protection in all its decisions,” the audience probably won’t believe us and we can expect to be met with cynicism and hostility. We need to find a way to make our message believable to our audience. For example, we could frame it in the context of legislation – e.g. “We comply with all environmental legislation in all our decisions” – this works if the audience believes that environmental legislation is strong. Or better still, we could flatter the activism of the sceptics – e.g. “We know that environmental protection is a priority for our customers, therefore, we prioritise environmental protection in all our decisions.”
Frustratingly, having the “truth” on your side is not enough to convince an audience to trust you, but if you understand the psychology of the audience you can still win their trust. If I figure out how to present something as coming from an ingroup and fit it into an audience’s preconceptions of the world, I can make them believe almost anything – even a lie (never a good idea in crisis communications, but sadly a tactic used by some).