Sunday, July 3, 2011

Cognitive Bias: Where Perception is Reality

In crisis communications, perception is reality. Stakeholders are after all humans and, like all of us, subject to involuntary cognitive bias.

The significance of cognitive bias in crisis communications is that it leads stakeholders to form lasting first impressions that will then “color” all subsequent information to fit the bias. Consequently, any new information that matches the bias will be used to reinforce it, while any information that contradict it will be discarded. This explains why first impressions are difficult to change and the importance of framing the crisis early.

In a crisis, the most common form of cognitive bias affecting communications is that of stereotyping. Defined by Wikipedia as a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing, stereotypes can both help or hinder the crisis communications efforts.

A classic example of the use of positive stereotyping was by Oliver North during the Iran-Contra scandal. Oliver's defence rested on him convincing the American public that he was an honorable man, fighting for freedom and democracy. Tapping on the values and image that the American public associated with its military men, Oliver conspicuously wore his military uniform throughout his televised trial. To many, this was what enabled Oliver North not only to avoid incarceration, but walk away as a “hero”.

In the same light, crisis communicators must be aware of the negative stereotypes that their clients may have. Be it the negatives associated with a politicians that “lie” or corporate leaders who are “heartless” and only interested in the bottom line. In a crisis, good crisis communicators must “distance” their clients from the negatives.

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