The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term persuade as “to cause another person to believe.” It’s a deceptively simple definition.  How do you convince someone to believe in something?  Moreover, how do you convince a group of people – each with their own views and values – to believe in the same thing?  I would argue participation can often be the ultimate form of persuasion.

The approach to persuasion long-favoured by public relations practitioners can be boiled down to a few key elements: Conduct research to learn about your audience; create messages that will resonate with them; and communicate those messages through various communications channels – then start over. It’s like detergent instructions: Wash, rinse, repeat. (The origin of spin cycle?)

This approach can be very effective in many situations, which is why it’s largely remained unchanged for the past 100 years or more. But now, audiences have changed and the limitations of this traditional approach are becoming increasingly clear. The transformation is happening at an accelerated pace and is being driven by technology – everything from mobile devices to social media – that has led to a more connected, better informed and more cynical public than ever before.

Many public relations professionals, including recognized experts in the field, argue that the key to reaching this new type of audience is to double-down, by cutting through the noise with a steady drumbeat of quality content. While that can work, I would argue that it isn’t necessarily the best approach in certain cases – such as, when trying to secure public support for large-scale infrastructure projects. In those cases, the more effective approach is to engage key stakeholders as full participants in the process.

If we accept the general premise that trust is the foundation of belief and moreover, that participation allows people to develop a greater sense of trust; then we have the makings of a new approach to persuasion. And yet, although participation is a different approach, it’s not an inconsistent approach. It represents an evolution of the traditional public relations persuasion formula and not a revolution.

Much has been written about ‘social license’ and what it takes to achieve it. While the concept is a very important one, the term itself is misleading because, as others have noted, there is no official ‘social license-issuing’ body. I prefer talking about social acceptance. A shift to a participatory communication model means instead of disseminating messages out organizations must collaborate with their audiences.  That collaboration can foster a greater sense of acceptance.

Different kinds of people will engage in different kinds of ways and to different degrees, depending on their stake in an issue and the impact a proposed change will have on them personally. Importantly, a participation-based approach is not about sharing information to help persuade large numbers of people to believe in your objectives, but rather, it’s about making decisions together with them. This two-way process leads to co-creation and it helps to build trust, support and buy-in.

The etymology of ‘persuade’ combines the Latin per and suadere – which translates roughly to ‘through advice.’ Advising people about change is very different than actively involving them in that change. In those cases where words are not enough, participation may be the only route to persuasion. Involving people early and often helps to engage minds. And, that’s how to convince them.

Rob Mariani is a senior vice-president with Hill+Knowlton Strategies and serves as general manager of their Ottawa offices.

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