By Danny Simons
We all have that friend who is a terrible dater, all first dates, never a second. The friend is attractive, fun to be around, relatively smart, and still can’t quite make it past an evening of casual drinks.
On the other hand, we also have a friend who is an expert dater. By the first few dates, their potential partner has confessed their love and the couple has shared visions of a future together.
The difference between the two comes down to one thing —understanding people.
For this reason, dating is the ultimate metaphor for public affairs. You need to understand your audience and their motivations, or your efforts will fall short every time. Whether approaching corporate stakeholders, government regulators, community members, or a blind date at a bar, there are three important milestones that must be achieved to build an impactful relationship.
The poor dater, out of naiveté or nervousness, will approach a date as a speaking engagement— an opportunity to share their likes, dislikes, and opinions. The expert dater asks questions, listens, and shares parts of themselves that resonate with what they hear.
The same goes for public affairs. Influencing policy and positions requires understanding a particular audience, locating the channel this audience uses to communicate, and observing the issues of importance. Only then can impactful content be targeted to resonate with this audience. Like dating, it’s not about your issues, it’s about theirs.
Ralph Nichols once said: “The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood.”
A good dater holds space for their partner to speak freely without judgement and responds by validating their emotions. When it is their turn to speak, they refrain from lecturing — choosing to talk with their date, not at them. Influence cannot begin until there is trust that one is being heard.
Connecting with a targeted audience requires the same type of trust as successful dating. Public affairs campaigns that win are tuned into people’s interests and allow them to feel part of something bigger. When an audience feels emotionally understood, they tend to believe you are aligned with their concerns or interests. They put their faith in you, confident that you can squash their fears better than anyone else can.
Let’s say you get the second date, and maybe even a third —that is still just the beginning. You must win over friends, parents, and so on. Your date’s mother asks her aunt if she likes you, and the aunt confides her feelings with her brother — perpetuating an endless conversation chain about your relationship, in which you are powerless.
Similarly, the goal of a public affairs campaign is to align a group of people to cross-influence each other. A deep understanding of the issues of a target audience in conjunction with a message that resonates, with an added knowledge of how these groups communicate, contributes to a lateral strategy of influence. The influencers become the influencers because your campaign is now part of the audience’s ethos.
So, know your audience, make them feel understood, and engage the circle of influence. Following these simple steps will enable the success of a public affairs project, or get you a second date!
June 10, 2022
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