You can’t win an argument — but you can avoid them

“Hyper-polarisation in groups” means a ‘wait and see’ approach to issues management is doomed to fail

It is possible to make a liberal, left-wing argument in favour of GM technology: It has the potential to lower food prices for the poor, deliver higher yields for impoverished farmers and reduce the need for environmentally-harmful agricultural inputs.

The advertiser backlash against YouTube could have been prevented

Were we able to travel back in time to the years when GM was a technology only scientists had heard of and start the argument from scratch, it is possible this could have become the dominant narrative among liberal, left-wing people.

But opposition to GM has become a defining issue for many — a matter of political identity, not debate. It is too late to move the needle among this large group. The GM industry will have to live with strong, passionate opposition for decades to come.

Too much issues management work risks falling into the same trap that the GM industry stumbled, decades ago, with YouTube, Uber and the fracking industry among those reaping whirlwinds that early intervention could have prevented.

This is typically how it works:

We listen to what people are saying about us. Once an issue reaches an initial pain threshold, we start to create our statements, line up our endorsers and prepare our spokespeople. Then, once the issue escalates further, to a second pain threshold, we wade into the debate, rebutting our critics and making the counter argument. If the issue really starts to gain traction, we finally start to mount a proactive campaign in defence of our work.

However, a psychological phenomenon called ‘hyper-polarisation in groups’ means that the traditional point at which organisations choose to intervene is simply too late to make a difference.

Nudge theorist Cass Sunstein described the impact of hyper-polarisation in a recent interview with Sam Harris. Sunstein conducted research in liberal and conservative areas in Colorado, to observe the phenomenon’s effects on people’s political positions. He recalled:

“We asked them for their views privately, then we had them discuss the issues together, then we asked them to record their views privately [again].

“There was reason to expect that if you got a group of people together, they’d end up coming to the middle of what the group members privately thought. but that’s not what happened…

“After they’d all talked to each-other, they were more extreme, more confident and they were pretty well unified…

“The basic rule is that usually people who are inclined in a certain direction, end up, after talking to each-other, thinking a more extreme version of what they thought before they started.”

For communicators, this means that once an issue gains emotional traction within a social network, the collective position becomes a matter of group identity — emotional, not rational. At that point, it becomes highly unlikely that anyone will be persuaded to change their mind and highly likely that the group will produce activists.

A “wait and see” strategy means that this is precisely the point in the debate at which the communications professional enters the fray — an outsider, armed with facts and counter-points, doomed to fail.

A better strategy, therefore, is to be proactive at an early stage: To talk to people about the issue before they have heard about it from their social network, to curate opinion and information about the topic, make reasonable concessions and encourage open-minded debate before an “accepted view” has been established. Listen, act and educate, rather than rebut and defend.

As Sunstein added:

“On most issues, Americans don’t have a strong emotional commitment. A lot of Americans are just curious and want to figure out what’s a good solution [to a problem]… If people don’t have a strong conviction to begin with, then if they believe something that’s not true and it’s corrected then the correction does stick.

But to move earlier and more effectively, we need to rethink the way we prepare in two significant ways:

Firstly, we need to change the way we think about our ‘pain thresholds’ when we monitor. When judging whether to intervene in a conversation, intensity matters more than volume.

Received wisdom states that if most of the conversation is being generated by a small group of people who are disproportionately engaged with the topic, that is less of a problem than if the conversation is widely dispersed. A small group making a lot of noise gets dismissed as a bunch of obsessives, whereas a wider group paying modest interest triggers PR people who worry the topic is gaining traction. This is a mistake.

A small group with an emotional story can very quickly mobilise public opinion — at least among those who identify with that group in some way. Ideas spread quickly within a tribe. Whereas, a lower level of conversation within a wider population means that awareness is rising, but the issue is not becoming a matter of group identity. Corrections can hold.

Rather than simply counting mentions across a whole population, monitoring needs to scan for clusters and look in detail at the tone of the conversation.

Secondly, and more importantly, horizon scanning needs to be internal, as well as external.

Rather than waiting to see what issues the crowd decides are important, organisations need to look within themselves and scrutinise the work they are doing in the same way their worst critics would.

On topics with the potential to become contentious, companies and institutions need to start telling their side of the story immediately, before anyone else has even started thinking about it, and while facts still matter.

Audiences can be receptive to reasonable argument from communicators, but not once received opinion has been formed. A good corporate reputation specialist can look at your organisation today and tell you what the flashpoints will be in the future, so start addressing them now. Once a group of people have wound themselves up on Twitter, you’ve lost them.

The biggest institutional barrier to adopting this approach is hubris. It is often when an industry or organisation is riding highest that it is storing up the most reputational problems for the future (beating rivals, disrupting the status quo and drawing public scrutiny, perhaps for the first time) and when, to leaders, nemesis seems least likely to arrive.