Six Principles of Persuasion that Power PR Success

Successful PR is all about persuasion. It’s about creating a good impression, building media and influencer relationships, managing reputations, creating authoritative content and managing crises.

So are there different ways to persuade others? Yes, there are.

You’ve probably heard of Robert Cialdini, a former Professor of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University. Back in 1984, He wrote Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, which has become accepted as one of the foundations of marketing strategy. In his book, he identifies six psychological principles that are integral to the process of persuasion. They are:

  • Reciprocity
  • Consistency
  • Social proof
  • Authority
  • Liking
  • Scarcity

So how can we use persuasion in public relations? Let’s look at each of Cialdini’s principles in turn.

1. The Principle of Reciprocity

 “Give what you want to receive. Whether it’s a sense of trust, a spirit of co-operation or a pleasant demeanour…” Robert Cialdini.

The principle of reciprocity is based on the notion that we, as human beings, are wired to reciprocate. In other words, we feel an obligation to give back when we receive something because we don’t want to feel like we owe anybody. This makes it more likely that people will say ‘yes’ to those they feel indebted to.

Reciprocity is the foundation of a strong business, irrespective of what sector you’re in, and it builds goodwill and trust.

But how can it be specifically applied to public relations?

The key to reciprocity is being the first to give and to do so in a way that’s personalised. This then gives you the opportunity to build a one-to-one relationship with – say – a key journalist or influencer.

So this could mean offering them an exclusive story or sending them an extra batch of free product samples beyond the usual press pack. Or you could share your industry contacts in order to support them with a story they’re writing. Or perhaps share their content or articles on your social media channels (even if the story has nothing to do with your brand). And when you do get coverage in a magazine or newspaper, introduce the story to a wider audience by sharing it on social, and not forgetting to name check the journo that wrote it. This always goes down well.

This notion of ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ is as old as the hills. But it works. It gets you noticed and remembered, and it increases the likelihood a journalist will come to you for a story next time. Plus they’ll look more favourably on your news release as it pings into their inbox.

2. The Principle of Consistency

“…a choice made actively—one that’s spoken out loud or written down or otherwise made explicit—is considerably more likely to direct someone’s future conduct than the same choice left unspoken.”  Robert Cialdini

Cialdini suggests encouraging people to make commitments that are “active, public and voluntary.” It’s in our nature to be consistent and once we’ve expressed an opinion or thought verbally, or have taken some kind of physical action, we’re more likely to be committed to it. In a business environment, the key is to ask people for small incremental commitments that they’re happy to make.

How does this principle of persuasion work in a public relations environment?

It’s up to PR professionals to encourage that voluntary, active and public commitment, Cialdini speaks about.

It could be as simple as asking your audience to sign up to your Facebook page and then sharing daily giveaways or vouchers. It could be getting people to sign up to a weekly newsletter that then delivers consistently entertaining and useful content every week. Or encouraging people to comment on your blog posts or Instagram posts.

Or it could be about getting a buy-in from a journalist. If you have a particularly difficult story you’re trying to secure coverage for, contact the journalist in advance and ask them if you can send the piece over to them rather than just emailing  and hoping for the best. Once they give you the go-ahead, send it across. Chances are they will be more willing to act on your request because they have already committed to it in some small part.

3. The Principle of Social Proof

“Use peer power whenever it’s available. Social creatures that they are, human beings rely heavily on the people around them for cues on how to think, feel and act.” Robert Cialdini

It’s in our nature to compare ourselves to others. It’s how we’re built. When we’re uncertain about something, we look at the actions of others to work out how we should behave. And we’re competitive too and look at other people’s successes and accomplishments and compare them to our own.

So, if you want to motivate people to take action, and get them to do something for you, it’s worth showing them what other people have already done, or are willing to do.

So how can PR use this persuasion principle?

Of course, you can’t rock up at The Guardian and demand they cover exactly the same story that The Daily Mirror picked up. But you can create a buzz about something or someone using social media, word of mouth and case studies. This shows a journalist or editor how people are already talking about this person, product or brand and perhaps they should do the same.

4. The Principle of Authority

“Expose your expertise; don’t assume it’s self-evident. Surprisingly often, people mistakenly assume that others recognise and appreciate their experience.” Robert Cialdini

People trust the opinion of knowledgeable experts. And that’s especially true when people know less than they think they should or are looking for guidance during a crisis. People often feel a sense of obligation to people in positions of authority. And that makes this particular public relations persuasion principle extremely useful.

Applying this persuasion technique in public relations is two-fold

Positioning your client as an expert and thought leader in their industry is essential. And this can be done through interviews, white papers, and opinion pieces. Journalists are more likely to reach out to someone for a soundbite when that person is deemed an authority.

But as a PR professional you also have to demonstrate your own expertise in order to win buy-in for campaigns. As a person responsible for building a relationship between a client and its public, you have to first build trust and authority around yourself before attempting to influence and persuade other people.

Your social media platforms and blog posts are an opportunity to showcase your expertise and demonstrate your in-depth knowledge. While a portfolio packed with successful PR campaigns and long-standing relationships with journalists and influencers, establish you as a PR expert.

5. The Principle of Liking

One of the easiest ways to persuade someone to do something is to be friends with them. According to Cialdini there are three factors that determine whether or not we like someone. We like people who are similar to us, who pay us compliments, and who work with us towards a common goal.

A positive working relationship starts with getting to know someone and identifying your similar interests or experiences. Praising their work or sending a compliment shows a genuine interest in the other person and is a way to break down barriers. While a mutual goal and working together to achieve that goal is likely to lead to a long-term mutually beneficial relationship.

So how can you use the liking principle in PR?

The liking principle can be used to your advantage in media or influencer relations. So before pitching a story to a journalist or influencer, take some time to research them. Read their articles, learn their voice, scroll through their content and identify a few similarities you may have. Then highlight these, as well as complimenting them on their articles or content, when you contact them.

People are much more likely to say ‘yes’ to people they like and trust and share similar interests or opinions with.

Building a good relationship takes time and effort. A few words of caution. Be charming, considerate and engaging. But don’t be weird, creepy or stalker-ish. A lack of sincerity can backfire and cause problems. Be authentic and consistent and, most importantly, likeable.

6. The Principle of Scarcity

When something’s hard to get it makes us want it more. Which is why we fall for ‘limited time special offers’ or messages about the ‘last few remaining’. This is the principle of scarcity. It’s the fear of missing out and it creates a sense of urgency which persuades us to take action.

Using the scarcity principle of persuasion in public relations

Scarcity is key when it comes to pitching a story to the press. So contact the most influential journalists, bloggers, vloggers and influencers first to offer them a time limited exclusive that no-one else is getting but them.

Scarcity and exclusivity can also be used as an effective PR tactic in persuading people to buy, download or get involved. That’s why new products are launched at a special price for a limited time only, or they’re marketed as only being available while stocks last.

The key here is not to be deceptive. Nothing spreads quicker on social media than an underhand and deceptive campaign that’s been uncovered. Don’t do it. Be consistent, honest and transparent.

When PR persuasion techniques go wrong

We’ve looked at the benefits of Robert Cialdini’s principles of persuasion. But can these persuasion techniques ever go awry?

In his book Persuasion IQ, Kurt Mortensen talks about the ten obstacles to successful persuasion:

  1. Thinking you’re better than you are. Persuasion is one thing. Harassing or bullying are another. Check yourself regularly to see where your persuasion skills can be improved.
  2. Trying too hard to persuade. Being too keen is a sure-fire way to put people off. Nurture that relationship with a journalist and don’t go in all guns blazing.
  3. Not putting in the effort. Persuasion takes work. Assuming you’ll get something for nothing will only result in disappointment.
  4. Talking too much. Stop speaking and listen to the people you need to persuade.
  5. An avalanche of information. Too much of anything is confusing. It makes people wonder what you’re not telling them. Focus on sharing the information people want to hear.
  6. Lack of preparation: Failure to prepare means preparing to fail as the saying goes. Whoever you’re speaking to will know when you’re winging it.
  7. Getting desperate. Like insincerity, people can spot fear at a distance. Don’t be desperate. Remain professional and respectful.
  8. Being afraid of rejection. Being concerned about being rejected can sometimes stop people trying any kind of persuasion technique to begin with. Be brave.
  9. Making assumptions about your audience. Thinking you understand your audience is one thing. But not being prepared to make a reassessment when new evidence emerges is a no-no.
  10. Using tired clichéd phrases to close a deal. ‘I’m looking out for you’, ‘the truth is…’ and ‘trust me on this one’ are ancient old sayings that just don’t work anymore. You need to engage whoever you’re communicating with right from the start of the conversation. Not just at the end.

The importance of persuasion in public relations

While the Six Principles of Influence can be reviewed and practised separately, using them together almost certainly increases their effectiveness. Using these six principles of persuasion will help you build your reputation as a leader and an expert in your industry.

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