When Emotions are Weaponized Against You

If you step back and look at patterns in content and coverage that you see in digital and traditional media, you’ll find that the pendulum has swung decidedly toward the emotional as opposed to the factual.

Before the Houston flood waters receded last week, MarketWatch, (the financial media site), tweeted and featured a story by a New York Post writer that focused on the style of shoes the First Lady wore when boarding Air Force One on the way to Texas. Clearly, the intent of the story was to further inflame emotional feelings against and in support of the current administration.

You may wonder with good reason, “What do the First Lady’s shoes have to do my financial health or the nation’s business and economic well-being?”

The quick answer is “nothing,” but stories like that do two things. First, they enrage readers on both sides of the issue and that means traffic, the life-blood of any media organization, digital or otherwise. Second, they feed the echo chamber of social media, where “shares” and retweets further accelerate the constant movement of eyeballs from one page to the next. The highway for all of this traffic is emotion.

With this in mind, here are some tips for effectively engaging when simply laying out the facts does not seem to be as effective as emotion in making your case:

Pay Attention to Optics

Optics are symbols and visuals that you can use to send the right message, or that critics use to taint your reputation. The First Lady’s shoes, though trivial in a factual sense, gave the administration’s critics fodder to frame it as out of touch. While the story was clearly overshadowed by so many other Hurricane Harvey stories, this example serves as an illustration that in big and small ways, optics can become issues unto themselves.

As important as it is to consider optics when planning a communication or event, it is equally important to be prepared to respond to attacks from critics who seemingly can turn the most mundane visuals into a negative statement about you if that’s how they want to portray it.  If your critics are dead set towards finding something about you to make an issue, they will do so.  You just need to be prepared for it and know, at least in general, how you will respond. The one mistake to avoid is to automatically accept the premise of the criticism.

Exaggeration is King

From click-bait social media headlines to sensational TV news teasers, media thrive on exaggeration. Often, when you present most developments as accurately as possible in the proper context, it can be quite boring.  This is because when you communicate clearly, people get an understanding of the who, what, when, where, why and how of the story. Once they get the context, they are not as likely to be alarmed. If they are not alarmed, shocked surprised or angered, they won’t respond at an emotional level, which means they may not respond at all.  In media terms, this means they may not click, read or watch.

Generating an emotional response through exaggeration is highly effective. The tabloids have been doing this for decades. By exaggerating and selectively omitting certain aspects of a story tabloids sell newspapers.

Did you ever click on a headline about an explosion in a factory or a nasty car accident only to find out buried deep in the story the fact that no one was hurt? Those are common examples of how exaggeration is used to get you to click. If you knew no one was hurt from the headline, you may not have clicked on the story from the start.  Buried or missing facts are often by design.

It’s much easier for originators to create caricatures of people and simplistic “good” versus “bad” scenarios rather than to delve into the complexities and nuances of a situation. These are major ingredients to creating an emotional response.

Critics will Attack Anyone Associated with You

In the jungle, the lion will chase after the herd until the weakest member of the herd falls away and becomes easy prey.

This same law of the jungle comes to play when critics use social media and traditional media to smear their targets. They don’t try to bring down the entire organization all at once, but rather, they will seek to find out as much as possible about individual employees, consultants, customers, consulting firms, partner firms and associates, anyone who has a relationship with the critics’ larger target.  They will then try to paint that individual or firm as a villain to generate an emotional response.

I once saw an activist group pour through the innocuous social media posts of a consultant who worked with an organization that was targeted for vilification. The activists took a select few social media posts so completely out of context it reached a level of all-out duplicity.  The group then featured those comments in a malicious document they passed off as an “investigative research report.” Their goal was to marginalize the consultant (and others) as part of the larger effort to discredit their main target.

The strategy was – one by one – to pick off anyone who might be associated with the larger target of a smear campaign with no basis in truth. It also sent a chilling message to anyone else who might have been considering working for or with the targeted organization.

Peer Pressure and the Social Media Mob

Thanks to social media, the peer pressure dynamics you thought you left behind in high school are still with us. Peer pressure relies on emotional dynamics to work. You must want to be popular, liked or accepted in order for peer pressure to have effect. If you have thick skin and are more resistant to peer pressure, it is much less effective.  Where this becomes complicated is if others in your organization are easily swayed by such pressure.

In many situations where public relations is involved, the desire to be liked and accepted is a fundamental premise. For this reason, we see an increasing amount of peer pressure used in support of and against our clients and brands.

When peer pressure is used against an organization or brand, it is oftentimes combined with shame. Critics will campaign to shame a targeted organization through a “social media mob.” Typically these groups and online communities are well-organized and calculatingly assembled, yet to many they appear as spontaneous, grassroots eruptions.  These sophisticated organizers seek to overwhelm a targeted organization into submission – again, through emotionally driven messaging and tactics.

What takes this dynamic to a higher level is that the “mob” may not simply want you to be quiet. Rather, the organizers may even seek to force you to endorse their position on a given issue even if that position is at odds with your own value system or best interests. The implied message is, “You either publicly endorse us or you’re our next target.”

Maybe the social media mob took its cue from Godfather movie mob boss Don Corleone when he talked about making “you an offer you can’t refuse.”

Know Your Core Values

In this environment, it is more important than ever to know what your organization stands for. What are the core values that you consider uncompromising?

Steve Jobs once described Apple as more than a company that sold computer boxes. He said that Apple is a company that exists to help those who think they can make the world better do so.

Most often, when you hear executives talk about their organizations’ core values, they’re speaking in platitudes that drive marketing and other routine business functions. Perhaps it is most important to be aware of your core values when your organization is under fire for sticking to them.

As we see every day, it doesn’t take much for digital media and traditional media to latch onto some superficial concept that uses emotion to draw you or your organization into potentially controversial and viral situation.

There can be tremendous pressure to compromise on your organization’s focus and core values, and to cave into the expectations of others who seek to use your organization as an example of how they can inflict their will. The kneejerk response is to quickly appease and concede in the hopes your critics will move on to another target. More often than not, this action tends to embolden the critics, not soften them, leading to a situation where the critics demand more than they did originally. The stakes get higher.

Many organizations succumb to this because managers themselves can get caught up in the emotions of the moment. Keep in mind, average news cycles usually last 24-48 hours. At the very least, your organization needs to be able to get through that period as responsively and responsibly as possible without hastily over-reacting, causing the kind of fallout you have to live with when the spotlight is no longer on your organization.

Remember, your critics may represent a small minority and not the majority of people’s perceptions. Your job is not to change their point of view, but rather, to make sure your most important stakeholders are aware of your position.

When you have a strong set of core values, and you unapologetically stand by them and the responsible decisions you make that are in keeping with them, you will win at an emotional level that drives to the very core of what really matters to most people.

Why Emotional Language is More Powerful than Facts

In more and more situations of late, I have found myself counseling clients that the facts can’t speak for themselves, and that we need to frame facts in the proper context with a little help from emotion. It would seem that in today’s communications environment, one person’s fact is another person’s opinion.

What does seem to break through is anger, fear, joy, surprise, sadness and trust, though some emotions seem to dominate more than others.

ESPN’s Emotional Decision Leads to Overwhelmingly Emotional Reaction

Consider the recent decision ESPN made not to have Asian-American broadcaster Robert Lee call an upcoming University of Virginia football game in September. At the center of the decision was the fact  that Robert Lee, the announcer, shares a name with the late Confederate General Robert E. Lee. That would seem to be all that they have in common.

An ESPN spokesperson told SI.com the rationale was based on what SI.com described as the possibility of “potential mockery that could come from doing the game.”

In a statement, ESPN said, “We collectively made the decision with Robert to switch games as the tragic events in Charlottesville were unfolding, simply because of the coincidence of his name. In that moment it felt right to all parties. It’s a shame that this is even a topic of conversation and we regret that who calls play-by-play for a football game has become an issue.”

Needless to say, the social media backlash was immediate, viral and quite emotional.

Don’t Make Decisions Based on Emotion

Notice that in explaining its decision, ESPN said “in that moment it felt right.” That’s hardly a justification for any decision. In fact, just about every mistake we make as imperfect human beings can be traced back to such a statement.

“In that moment it felt right.”

What this reinforces is that when making decisions, leaders and managers must do so devoid of emotion while maintaining a sense of the emotional impact of those decisions.

Use Emotions to Influence

The ESPN case illustrates how an emotional narrative drove the network to make an ill-advised decision that in the end brought on the network the very thing it was trying to avoid.

If you want to influence somebody, use emotion. Sellers do this every day. Cars are not sold on the basis that they run better than other cars. They are sold because of the emotional statement they make about you. You are successful. You care about the environment. You are fun. The car you choose makes a statement about you.

The same can be said for the kind of beer you buy, the clothes you wear, the vacation destinations you choose. Each decision you make is based at least in part on how that decision makes you feel. Your emotions.

With this in mind, the language you choose to convince others should consider the facts for the sake of credibility (something ESPN should have done), and then communicate in emotional terms. Here are some examples:

Ultimately, both emotions and facts have their place in the decision-making and communications process. The key is to know when and where to rely on facts, and when messages must be delivered at an emotional level to truly connect.

O’Brien Communications conducts research and programs to help clients find the right balance between emotions and facts in the messaging and language they feature in their communications and marketing programs.