Shut Doors and Improve PR

Humans are bad at eliminating options, and it costs us dearly in job performance, relationships and effectiveness, says an article in today’s International Herald Tribune that reviews a book by Dan Ariely called Predictably Irrational. According to experiments carried out by Ariely, a professor of bahavioural economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), people will go to great lengths to avoid narrowing their choices, and will pay dearly to do so. The theory is that eliminating options is experienced as a loss, and we seek to avoid the related pain. For me, this was a stunning revelation, which will heavily influence my personal and professional choices as well as how I engage in public relations.

It also explains why many people seem to be bad at strategic planning and project implementation. Whether in the office or when dealing with volunteers in the International Association of Business Communicators, no matter how many times people are reminded of limited resources, I have witnessed them still wanting to do it all…and in the end accomplishing little or nothing.

Other implications for PR include the fact that when we are addressing issues that reduce people’s choices, we need to understand the psychological aspect and help people both deal with their loss and embrace the benefits that arise from having a greater focus.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to shut this door, because it’s costing me on other fronts.

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8 Replies to “Shut Doors and Improve PR

  1. J. — Thanks to you and all the others for your comments. I don’t think the research is saying that we should wear blinkers or not be curious. But choices are a necessary part of life, and this research shows that people are generally bad at making choices and lose a lot of time, energy and lost opportunities while dithering. Apparently, the more similar the positive and benefits of two options, the harder the choice. When a person will clearly benefit from moving in one direction, he or she will do it. But when when he or she will be pretty much as well off with either choice, then it is difficult to decide. This is classis Analysis Paralysis. This research says that choosing either of the equivalent options quickly will be more advantageous than dithering (which has a high cost).

    So yes, we need to be widely read, to have a good overview of whatever situation we confront, etc. But at some point, we need to move to action. It is also helpful to recognize that the people we are building relationships (or our bosses/clients) may have the same difficulty making decisions, and we may have a role to play in helping them reach closure.

  2. This blog has had quite a few responses and the overall idea behind the original message has produced multiple ideas and points of views on various subjects. But I would like to simply give my thoughts from the original comment that narrowing choices costs everyone in the end, whether it be in careers or relationships. I completely disagree with this argument. After all, is it not PR’s job to look at every possible option to come to the best conclusion? Yes, humans avoid pain by keeping all doors open, but keeping doors open leaves us with many options to choose from to make us happy in the end. Why would I ever take the chance at limiting myself where in the end my happiness and self satisfaction is taken from me? If I’m happier, then the people around me will be happier to be around me. Keeping my doors open has always benefited me, and I don’t regret keeping any of my countless doors opened. Maybe we shouldn’t be looking at how narrowing our options is better, but maybe look at how to benefit from what’s behind all doors and making the best out of any situation.

  3. Cathy, of course I am with you on this.

    However (and I am just concluding in a couple of days another highly intensive course with a great class of masters students here at nyu), I suggest we stay away from the ‘do-good’ argument and only elaborate on the ‘be effective’ one to avoid the usual and trite ‘the business of business is business’argument.

    I have the impression that many of us who pay ‘lip service’ to the two way, communicating-with, tendentially symmetric practice and its inextricable ties with social media, haven’t even begun to realize how effective and superior this approach is compared to all the others which are still very much in circulation.

    If academics… because they haven’t directly epxrienced it and, having never made the effort to read the very boring but necessary interview protocols of the excellent communication exercise of more the 15 years ago, still believe (and teach) this is a normative model.

    If professionals… because they don’t want to make the effort to review common and standard communicating-to practices and prefer to continue investing in self serving measurement devices which can become elegant management board power point images.
    If the gender slanted remark is only half acceptable..it is like David Ogilvy once said about corporate advertising (its like peeing in one’s pants: you feel very warm inside and nobody notices..).

  4. Hello all,

    Kristen’s post and the subsequent conversation has made me laugh a lot – simply because it has made me even more acutely aware than normal of my own failings!

    I am insatiably curious, easily diverted and capable of rapid response to incidents like fires (did I mention one of my sons took up firestaff juggling at Christmas), hedgehogs in swimming pools (a long story) and snakes loose in the plumbing of an apartment block (another long story). These traits mean that I will probably never be sufficiently focused to make any money, but I do think that they make me at least a reasonable public relations practitioner.

    Why? Because we need to be curious – as Toni so rightly says – and we do need to be capable of rapid cognition – as per Blink – and we need not necessarily *be* irrational (although I do have my moments) but we do need to have complete and total understanding of what it means to be irrational, given that people, communities and publics will and do act irrationally at a moment’s notice. Rapid cognition and predictive analysis based on copious research sparked by insatiable curiosity are pretty stock standard tools of our trade (or profession) as far as I’m concerned.

    I’m tempted to query Toni’s comment on one thing though. He said:

    “I don’t like the use of the term help, because we are not a voluntary association of do-gooders but professionals who seek to produce effective value for their clients or employer”

    Certainly, we are professionals – and describing our output as “producing effective value for clients and employers” is probably just the right phrase for a credentials presentation. But like it or not, we are still helping. Personally, I am all for ‘doing some good’ – a particular capability of public relations, and a very valuable one at that, especially when it comes to democratic intervention and advocacy. If areas of practice such as CSR are to be genuinely of value, then they *have* to ‘do some good’ – otherwise it is nothing more than window-dressing. (I guess I have to have one of those disclosure moments here: the consultancy I set up in 1991 had two straplines which I still adhere to today. Externally, we said: ‘First we listen, then we get results’ and internally and externally we explained that we would try to ‘do some good, (which would be the way we would measure the value of our work for our clients and communities), make some money (so the business stayed viable and we could all pay our bills), and have some fun (because everyone should enjoy what they do)’ – so helping has been in my job description for many years now).

    Relationships are built on shared values, rather than effective value. If we want to develop the relationships necessary for an organisation to function (and create the necessary monetary value to keep teenagers in firestaffs) then as practitioners we have to facilitate (aka: help, enable, make easier, catalyze etc.) that process.

    Unblinkered, well informed, widely-scoped help is one of the things we do best. Unless we get too distracted of course…

  5. In Gladwell’s Blink, he recounts several examples of “intuition”, which seemed similar in some respects to Sutherland’s ideas about making irrational decisions. However, what both picked up on is the way that being irrrational often involves reacting unconsciously – which can be good or bad.

    As Toni says, we need to be more aware of when we, as PR practitioners, are doing this and learn to focus, without wearing blinkers.

    One example that I found particularly interesting was in relation to the way that fire fighters are trained and react. They never quite know what they will face in an emergency, and are prepared for a wide variety of circumstances, whilst still able to review and react to the individual situation rather than just follow the rules. Could that analogy be applied to PR practice?

  6. So it is…but I somewhat disagree and, in voicing my opinion, I will focus on our professional activity.

    In her post Kristen writes quote
    when we are addressing issues that reduce people’s choices, we need to understand the psychological aspect and help people both deal with their loss and embrace the benefits that arise from having a greater focus unquote.

    Any issue you work on ends up in reducing someone’s choices.

    As we well know we need to consider, in front of the different and often conflictual expectations of different stakeholder groups, that when our organization decides to go in a certain direction, we inevitably produce consequences on these groups… desirable for some, undesirable for others.

    To be effective, this is analysis is imperative everytime we act and, of course, we must quote
    help people both deal with their loss and embrace the benefits that arise from having a greater focus unquote.

    I don’t like the use of the term help, because we are not a voluntary association of do-gooders but professionals who seek to produce effective value for their clients or employers.
    But it so happens that in most cases one may produce effective value for the client/employer as well as for society.
    However, this does not solve the issue, as it does not necessarily apply to a specific stakeholder group’s interest.

    So we are certainly and always also dealing with someone’s loss and, if we have nurtured effective relationships with them before that loss, we will at least have the opportunity to attract their attention (however hostile on specifics), and this allows us dialogue over other related issues which could, given the policy of our organization to decide taking in consideration stakeholder expectancies, satisfy other expectancies they have expressed…

    It’s a tough life out here…but well worth the hassle.
    The risk of focussing too much on priorities is that of listening only to oneself. No?
    Of course I very much agree that selection is absolutely mandatory, but we must also be well aware of what options we are missing by doing this.
    I have many friends and colleagues who, constrained by the plethora of options, have voluntarily reduced their curiosity. They remain friends of course but I doubt they will for long remain colleagues as our profession is necessarily based on unabashed curiosity.

    As I get ancient and see so many young colleagues who are increasingly less curious than they should be in order to effectively practice this profession, I often wonder if the institutionalization process, as my dear friend Larissa Grunig would say, will not freeze the development of our profession.

    Yes, Heather, you are certaily right in saying that we are often irrational and that therefore even the most careful methods and systems do not take this into sufficient consideration.
    But like general rules are valid only because there are exceptions we need methods and systems to allow us to violate them…consciuosly aware that we are doing it.

    Any sense in this? Do you agree?

  7. Hi Heather,

    I agree, but at the same tme, doesn’t this help explain why some people are so successful? The few who do manage to focus and eliminate options have an advantage over the many who want to keep all their doors open.

    Food for thought…

  8. This reminds me of a great book by the late Stuart Sutherland, Irrationality (which was out of print but was republished last year – http://books.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,,2019791,00.html)

    I agree that as PR practitioners we need to really understand the psychology of people – which is frequently illogical and self-defeating.

    When looking at organisational planning, I believe there is a myth of the rational manager, which applies equally to those of us working in public relations. We set out objectives, devise our strategies, tactics, key messages and budgets, etc. Of course, choosing to forget that most people are marvellously irrational. So when (if?) we undertake evaluation and find that things didn’t quite work out as our rational plans forecast, we’d better post-rationalise, logically, and plan all over again.

    Isn’t that illogical? Or as the famous saying goes, a definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

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