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What exactly is evidence-based practice, and how can an approach that’s revolutionized other fields like medicine, education and criminal justice be applied to the field of communications?  I had about 30 minutes to discuss this last week during a media relations webinar hosted by the National Association of County & City Health Officials for public information officers from municipalities around the country.  

The organization tapped me to share some perspective on how public and private sector communicators alike must make their PR strategies more strategic and evidence-based. It’s an approach I study as a Senior Research Fellow at George Mason University, and one we take here at the Merritt Group — ensuring our work on behalf of clients is fueled by a blend of top practitioner expertise and deeper research understandings into how to connect the right audiences with the right organizational messages.

Despite our own agency commitment to fortify our client work with evidence-based strategies, I needed to level with the webinar audience of nearly 200 public information officers from municipalities around the country that, frankly, the field of communications overall is still coming to terms with what evidence-based practice means – and how much it means – to those of us who communicate and sell for a living. 

Defining Evidence-Based Practice for Communications

Google the term “evidence-based practice” (EBP) and you’ll find upwards of 10 million results; the most prominent tend to reference medicine, where EBP has really caught on. But EBP has revolutionized many fields beyond medicine – including education and criminal justice. By contrast, you’ll find relatively little about applying EBP to communications.

This is a bit concerning, but also a validation that there’s a sorely-needed opportunity to apply evidence-based practice across communications functions to strengthen results in disciplines from marketing to PR. As I discussed with the city and county PR officials on the webinar, we’re after several things, including:

  • Replicate the successes in other fields that come from combining real-world best practices with deeper research understandings
  • Strike the right balance by avoiding the extremes, such as:
    • Research-heavy documents that lack accessible and practical applications, or
    • Overly-simplistic counsel or media coaching that focuses mostly on helping please journalists with good quotes versus strategically leveraging media and other stakeholders as part of broader civic and organizational goals
  • Foster ongoing and evolutionary progress in which research and practice constantly build on each other

That last bullet merits a bit of explaining, and ties to some of my own research at George Mason University and the practitioner work we do at the Merritt Group on behalf of clients. Just as technologists need dashboards to visualize organizational status and strategy, communicators need a similar dashboard to track impact.

At George Mason University, we use something we call a Communications Ecosystem to navigate through a constantly shifting set of factors and circumstances that impact how we craft and deliver messages to customers, media, funders and other audiences. It’s tremendously useful, but whatever your specific approach, it needs to be both evidence-based and actionable.

Research Informs Practice…and Vice Versa

The benefits of combining the practitioner and researcher’s world go both ways in terms of the quality of strategy, messaging and results. Let’s look at a couple examples to see how the insights can indeed go both ways when we apply the evidence-based lens to our PR and Marketing practices: 

A few years ago, I advised the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of New Hampshire for a joint study on social media usage during the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. Among other things, this research shed light on the importance of rumor control and long term social media engagement that needs to happen before, during and after a crisis.  This research helped me and other practitioners refine our guidance to colleagues and clients about how and when to deploy social media. It’s a clear case where research informed best-practices.

On the flip side, veteran practitioners who deal with the media and the public have long known to avoid negative wording and imagery, even when trying to prove a positive point. Back when I was a strategic communications AVP at a major university, for instance, I cringed when one of our academic deans told reporters, “It would be a slap in the face to the health department if we didn’t include them in this safety review.” All anyone could think about after hearing that quote was “slap in the face” (local reporters certainly seized on the phrase). That’s why we call something a “challenge” instead of a “problem,” an “issue” instead of a “scandal,” and so on.

It turns out that this long-standing communications best practice about avoiding negative wording has a research underpinning. In cognitive neuroscience, there is something called “associative activation.” The brain makes preconscious, involuntary associations between stimuli and emotions. Negative wording is the kind of stimulus that triggers a cascade of related negative ideas, faster than – and regardless of – the logical context within which you’re using that language.

Associative activation theory was not developed with media training or crisis communications in mind, but it helps explain one of our best practices. What’s more, it leads to additional insights and underpinnings: Associative activation applies not just to words, but also to facial expressions (useful for spokesperson training) and images (good to know for crisis communicators looking to allay fears stoked by SM posts and news reports featuring images of graphic destruction or misery).

Hopefully, these examples give you a sense of how we can tailor our communications and marketing strategies most effectively when we combine the best of both the practitioner’s and researcher’s world. 

If you’re looking to get more out of your PR and marketing efforts, contact Merritt Group to optimize your strategy and accelerate ROI!

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