Saturday, June 6, 2015

A Playbook for Persuading People to Use Public Transportation

This article was originally published by Mobility Lab.

The art of persuasion was on display in two sessions at the end of the Center for Transportation Excellence conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan this week.

When attempting to convince someone to try something new – such as transportation alternatives to driving – arguing facts simply won’t work and usually makes the situation worse, according to keynote speaker Christopher Graves, the global chair of Ogilvy Public Relations.

“Decision-making is emotional. Without emotion, humans simply cannot arrive at a decision,” Graves said. “When people are told, or read, that they are wrong, they feel actual physical pain.”

Other keys to influencing decision-making, according to Graves, include:

  • Using myths is a bad idea. It often backfires, inadvertently popularizing the myth for people who had never heard it in the first place and repeating it for people who naturally tend to believe things the more they hear them. He showed a video of a conflicted father dealing with his daughter’s same-sex marriage, suggesting that this would be much more effective in potentially changing opinions than a website detailing myths versus facts.
  • Affirmation works really well, but we don’t use it enough. Try to relate to your opponents (for instance, saying things like “I know you love your family” and “I know you hate traffic” before jumping in with what you know will be combative). Graves added, “Affirm them as a human first, and you have a little bit of an edge. Nobody confirms anymore, everyone is already an idiot.”
  • Narrative fiction tends to be more effective than lectures, PowerPoints, pamphlets, and other types of communication. “People feel it’s not a blatant attempt to change their mind,” he said, noting that test subjects who read about a soccer hooligan as the main character in a story actually related and tried to be more like that “dumb” character, with their test scores going down compared to before ready the hooligan’s story.
  • Use concrete rather than abstract concepts. The Center for Science in the Public Interest recently was charged with getting people to understand the unhealthiness of movie popcorn. It held a press conference at a theater and showed what the massive amount of fat found in a bucket of popcorm would equal in terms of a person’s daily diet. It roughly equals bacon and eggs, cheeseburgers, steaks, deserts. It’s the equivalent of a disgusting amount of greasy, unhealthy junk. And it was never more clear how bad moviegoers had been treating their bodies all those years.

He finished by noting that consumers are smart. “They’ll get it” if it’s explained well to them. To create a true movement, Graves said:

  • an issue has to be real and immediate
  • has to be something people can relate to, and
  • has to have a foreseeable outcome or result.

“The most important thing is to get on message and stay on message. If you have too many messages, you really have no messages at all,” said Mike Zuhl, R&R Partners’ government and public-affairs director, in a separate session at the conference.

His group has worked on several transit campaigns, including one that began with the Utah Transit Authority and has been effective in other places as well, with an overall message of “even if you don’t ride it, you use it.”

“There may not be a better message than anywhere in the country. You can create messaging in a communications plan by coming up with about 50 different ways to use that one message.”

Other tactical recommendations made by Zuhl and Parks included:

  • Get others in the community to step up with your messages. The spokespeople should not be political or transportation officials, but rather respected leaders in the community.
  • Use social and non-traditional media. R&R wrapped up a store to look like a train, which was a “wonderful way to promote transit” and also ran a campaign to have local bands in Phoenix write songs about transportation.
  • Start small when it comes to infrastructure projects, like in Charlotte and Orlando. When a handful of people start riding a system, it becomes real and has a better chance at long-term success.
  • Create a neighborhood plan with grass-roots outreach. Have people ride around in a “Scooby Doo-like van” educating people about what’s in it for them, and include yard signs and t-shirts in the plan.
  • Know your opponents and be ready for them. While you shouldn’t get into back-and-forth arguments, you also shouldn’t be so shy and nice. Parks said, “Staying above the fray won’t work. If something is true most of the time, we can run with it. It’s all about sound bites and people’s short-attention spans. The other side goes with stuff all the time that has zero basis in fact. If something is true 80 percent of the time, it’s worth using.” Also watch the Merchants of Doubt documentary. Repeat to the news media that this is how your opponents operate and that the 10 things they’re saying are not true. This also helps you avoid calling them names.

For more ideas of how to tell better stories that persuade people about the immense value of public transportation, we like the American Public Transportation Association’s Voices for Public Transit reference site. And, of course, our own archive of marketing and communications resources isn’t half-bad either.

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