Do your spokespeople have an image problem? Why ‘who’ is sometimes more important than ‘what’.

If you are a parent of school age children you may recognise the scenario. Your child asks you to help them with a maths sum. You take a close look, think you know the answer and start to explain the methodology. But within seconds she or he is either vacantly staring into the distance or visibly agitated by your explanation and, it appears, your very existence. If said child asks a relative or friend (in my case the next-door neighbour’s son) to help, you will be left marveling at his or her decorum as they studiously listen to what appears to be a very similar explanation delivered in what seems to be the same tone and style.

You are probably not the worst teacher in the world. It’s just that sometimes who is saying something is more important than what is said. It is one of the reasons parenting author Steve Biddulph (The Secret of Happy Children, Raising Boys etc.) sets such store by what he calls mentors – because teenagers (in particular) are inclined to actively seek counsel outside of the family nucleus because of a psychological desire to ‘differentiate’ themselves from their parents.

New research by social psychologists in Toronto illustrates why PR practitioners – particularly those engaged in public campaigns and debate – should bear a correlated phenomenon in mind.

Nadia Bashir and her university colleagues conducted a series of studies into stereotypes of feminist and environmental activists among US and Canadian participants. They found that large sections of respondents agreed with activists’ messages, but were put off by not wanting to affiliate themselves with the kind of person they think makes an activist.

According to the British Psychological Society Research Digest, the studies included a sample of 140 participants recruited online, who admitted to being less inspired by the arguments of an environmentalist presented as being ‘typically militant’ (their words, not mine) – not just because of seeing him as having more negative stereotypical traits, but also because of not wanting to affiliate with him.

“Past research on people’s advocacy for social change has tended to focus on their beliefs about the issue at hand, or on the personality characteristics of people who tend to favour social change or oppose it. This study is novel in that it focuses instead on people’s perceptions of those who campaign for social change,” says the BPSRD. “The very individuals who are most actively engaged in promoting social change may inadvertently alienate members of the public and reduce pro-change motivation.” Oh the irony!

What are the implications for PR?

If you are involved in social change communications – no matter what side of a debate –understanding the attitudes of those you are seeking to influence in relation to your advocates and ambassadors (distinct from what you are saying) seems vital.

If your research reveals that the messengers are killing the message, then PR’s job is to identify the similarities and connections between those looking to do the influencing and those being influenced, breaking down the stereotypes and developing affiliations. It’s one of the reasons charities (for example) started profiling staff in detail in their fundraising communications and why they spend so much time and effort in selecting and enlisting celebrity ambassadors who will resonate most widely with their target audiences.

What are the alternatives? To change campaigners or target publics? It seems to me that either choice would create more problems than it solves. Transform your activist base and you risk losing the passion and vitality of the people who care most about what you are doing. Shift publics and you risk aiming your efforts in the wrong direction.  Both look like ducking the challenge, rather than the enlightened self-interest of negotiation, persuasion and compromise inherent in trying to find the common ground.

What do other PR professionals think? Is this something you’ve experienced in your campaigns? Any other solutions?