Facts vs. Emotions – Who Wins?

confusion/emotion vs. facts/evidence

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“Facts are stubborn things,” President John Adams once said. “And whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

True, facts are stubborn things, but…people are more stubborn.

In a battle between logic and emotion, emotion will win over facts most of the time.

Researchers have estimated that 80% of decisionmaking is emotional, and only 20% rational. According to Kevin Roberts, CEO of advertising giant Saatchi and Saatchi, “Reason leads to conclusions. Emotion leads to action.”

Just look at the US presidential elections. How rational is any of what has been happening there? Fact-checkers have been busy, but facts don’t seem to be what many voters are looking for.

The Brexit vote was completely unexpected by those who thought their long list of economic arguments was enough to convince the British people to stay in the European Union.

And in the Middle East, UNESCO just passed a resolution claiming that the Temple Mount and Western Wall in Jerusalem have no historical connection to Jews (despite thousands of years of evidence).

These days, it feels like facts have been thrown out the window.

The fact is (whether or not it will convince you!) that emotions are powerful things. Feelings of frustration, patriotism, nostalgia, jealousy or fear can easily outweigh well thought-out, logic-based arguments. And sometimes they can drive people to make up their own “facts” that, repeated often enough, take on a life of their own.

But this doesn’t only happen in politics. Think about the communication campaigns out there trying to convince people to change their behaviors. What do most of them do? Lay out the cold, hard facts to persuade people rationally why they should do the right/healthy/socially beneficial thing. No wonder they don’t make much of a dent!

So, how do you motivate members of your community to take action on your health or social issues? You don’t need to abandon facts altogether – they play an important role in providing information and establishing credibility.

But facts alone are not enough.

Combine your most compelling facts with an emotional appeal. This is not a cynical thing to do – this is how our brains work! Do research with your priority populations to find out what they care about. Align your behavioral “product” with people’s values to show how they can get what they want and need emotionally by coming on board.

Social marketing gives you a systematic approach to designing social impact programs that take emotion into account. Making a behavior fun, social and easy are only some of the ways you can go beyond providing “just the facts.”

Communicating the Flu

The tiny H1N1 virus pictured above (the influenza formerly known as “Swine”)* has brought me back to this blog after a long hiatus. As those of you who have read this blog for a while know, I have written quite a bit about pandemic preparedness from a social marketing perspective both here at Spare Change and as an invited blogger on the HHS Pandemic Flu Leadership Blog in 2007.

At that time, a pandemic seemed like a far-off risk, though we knew it was more a question of ‘when’ than ‘if.’ Since then, HHS and CDC have been working hard to increase preparedness at the national, state and local levels. From the rapid and effective response we’ve seen so far, it appears that they have done good work in that arena. Health departments and school districts in the US, and especially in Mexico City, have been quick to identify cases, isolate them and implement social distancing measures to keep people away from each other.

But I’d hoped we would have been further along prior to a pandemic in the areas of public awareness and preparedness. I’m currently involved in the social media piece of a CDC contract that is building grassroots coalitions to increase pandemic preparedness at the community level. As you can imagine, this project has been refocused to be H1N1-specific, and the timeline has been greatly accelerated. Our biggest concern, up until a week or so ago, was ‘how do we get people to understand what a pandemic is and why they should care?’ Suddenly, awareness is no longer an issue. But that also means that we are dealing with many other challenges that did not previously exist.

I believe that the CDC and WHO have done an excellent job of getting information out about the virus, its victims and how to prevent the spread of the flu. They are providing straightforward facts without hype and avoiding alarmism in their communications. The social media team has been especially innovative in providing online tools and maintaining an active presence on various online social media sites.

Unfortunately the 24-hour news machine, which by its nature needs to be constantly fed with new information, different angles on the same story, and attention-grabbing visuals, sank its teeth into the pandemic story and ran with it. Constant stories about new victims, pictures of people wearing masks, and ridiculous overreactions like that of Egypt, which slaughtered all of the country’s 300,000 pigs, overwhelmed the public. Even Vice President Joe Biden put his foot in his mouth and said that he advised his family to stay off airplanes and subways, going far beyond any recommendations given by the government and adding to the sense of panic (he later backtracked).

A backlash has been building against the perceived hysteria, which has created its own new problems. People with the sniffles are flooding emergency rooms and demanding to be screened for H1N1. Tamiflu and Purell are flying off the shelves. People are wearing masks when going out in public, even though the masks are designed more for preventing a sick person from spreading their illness rather than protection from the other direction. The result is that many people are afraid and are growing weary of having their guard up with no perceived benefit.

Luckily, it appears that for now, this H1N1 virus may not be the Big One. It’s too early to know whether it will mutate and come back in a more virulent form, as the 1918 influenza virus did. And it’s impossible to know what might have happened with it had precautions not been imposed from the very beginning. Greg Dworkin of the Flu Wiki does an excellent job of explaining how seemingly drastic measures at the beginning of a pandemic can make all the difference in the outcomes. But prevention gets no respect. It’s really hard to get excited about something that didn’t happen. Many people don’t understand that the public health system has to act on the potential threat, not waiting to see how bad it will get before intervening. Prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

Whichever way the body count goes, the government would not win with its critics. It will either be accused of overhyping the threat or it will be accused of not being prepared enough. Michael Coston captured this Catch-22 well in his post “Predicting the Unpredictable“:

The more successful they are in containing this outbreak, or in mitigating its effects, the more criticism they will receive in the press for over-blowing the threat.

And when this pandemic comes and goes without too much incident, particularly in the US, people may become complacent the next time we find ourselves facing a nasty virus. The government is seen as the bureaucrats who cried wolf and important recommendations may be ignored.

So what do we need to be doing to take this situation into account as we develop our communication efforts around pandemic preparedness? I have some recommendations:

  • We may have a window of opportunity for individuals and families to begin the process of gathering the supplies they would need in the case of an extended severe pandemic to survive at home sheltering in place. I think that HHS did a good thing by not emphasizing the need to stockpile food while we were in the thick of the beginning of the outbreak, thereby avoiding panic and shortages. But once the danger has passed, messages about slowly but steadily building up a supply of food, water and medical supplies must begin. (Here is an excellent pdf guide to pandemic preparedness and response.)
  • Complacency is a real danger. Messages should make the point that a severe pandemic remains a real possibility and that prevention measures kept this H1N1 virus in check. Parallels with the 1918 influenza virus, which started out relatively mild but returned in a second wave in a more virulent form, may illustrate the possible risks. In any case, the same good hygiene habits that prevent the spread of H1N1 will benefit people by keeping away seasonal flu as well and should be continued.
  • We must take care not to use fear-based messaging and imagery because this can lead to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness — not useful emotions when trying to get people to take action. Messages should emphasize how being prepared puts you in control. During turbulent times, giving people steps they can take to prevent or mitigate problems makes them feel empowered and capable. That’s what we need!
  • Government agencies need to avoid any perceptions that their decisions are being made based on politics rather than science. In chatting with an acquaintance who was at NIH during the 1976 Swine flu epidemic, I learned that he strongly advised against proceeding with making the vaccine public because of safety concerns. He was overruled in favor of political considerations; 25 people died and hundreds of others were paralyzed from the faulty vaccine. While some conspiracy theorists will find nefarious motivations in any government actions, don’t give reasonable people cause to doubt the basis of your policies.
  • Emphasize that being prepared for a pandemic will benefit them for many other types of disasters as well. Many of the same recommendations for food, water and medical supplies apply for regional hazards like earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods. It never hurts to be prepared, and often helps.
  • Continue to use social media to monitor what people are saying about pandemic flu-related issues. This can give you an idea of incorrect information or rumors that are being passed around, or the questions that keep coming up that need to be answered.
  • The government needs to be proactive about getting its messages out, beyond the news media. Television ads, entertainment education outreach, radio and outdoor media all could be used effectively to motivate people to prepare for another pandemic episode. Social media efforts can be expanded from primarily news coverage to help people learn more about preparedness activities.
  • The tone of the information needs to continue to be straightforward and factual, but emotionally appealing to various audiences. Right now the messages are very general, but they should be tailored to different key groups. If only we had a C. Everett Koop-style figure — or at least a Surgeon General!

This will be a challenge. But on the bright side, we have a higher level of pandemic awareness than I ever thought possible. We need to take full advantage of this window of opportunity.

*Thanks to Michael Coston for that very cute name!

Image credit: CDC Influenza Laboratory

The Meaning of Definitions redux

Richard reposted a link to this post I wrote last year and it reminded me how much I liked it. I’m reposting it as well in honor of Daylight Savings Time starting tonight, since many of my readers may not have seen it the first time around…

Richard Kearns, the poet-activist at aids-write.org, writes about two issues that at first seem entirely unrelated: the CDC’s description of AIDS, and the designation of Daylight Saving Time. After his requisite lovely poem, he writes:

seventeen years ago i belonged to a la-based gay men’s HIV-positive ASYMPTOMATIC support group. ASYMPTOMATIC was the functional word: it distanced us as far as we could get from AIDS. it was having it without having it. fear and shame and stigma captured in a moment of language.

had a love there whom i’ll call jerry, a blonde, blue-eyed hunk with fifty-two t-cells and a kiss that kept me alive. fifty-two t-cells made him happy. fifty was the cutoff. he didn’t have AIDS. he was ASYMPTOMATIC. he felt fine. he felt more than fine. i must agree he felt more than fine.

then came the day.

in an effort to make federal funding available to the shockingly growing national population of HIV-infected individuals, the us center for disease control (cdc) revised its AIDS “portrait” to include — among other things — persons with fewer than 200 t-4-cells. the cdc made this announcement on a monday. our support group met on tuesdays.

jerry came to the meeting in tears.

last week, he’d been free as a bee can fly, an HIV-positive ASYMPTOMATIC person. this week, he had AIDS. nothing else had changed. and everything.

that was the day jerry began to die. i will simplify the rest of his story and tell you he lasted about another year.

Later, Richard talks about the concept and history of Daylight Saving Time:

the us law by which we turn our clock forward in the spring and back in the fall is known as the uniform time act of 1966. the law does not require that anyone observe daylight saving time; all the law says is that if we are going to observe dst, it must be done uniformly.

while it’s not new to our lifetimes, the notion of dst has been around for most of this century and earlier. in the tradition of divinely-appointed kings who could not halt the tides by their bidding, it is an idea new with democracy, itself an exercise in social justice: an informed constituency can command the sun’s passage…

a democracy can command the time, it can alter the fall of daylight.

The implicit point that Richard makes with this juxtaposition of concepts is that definitions are powerful. The words we use to describe something can mean the difference between health and disease, between light and darkness. Jerry’s health status was exactly the same before and after the CDC’s pronouncement, but the new definition of a healthy t-cell count was essentially a death sentence. The sun is still in the same position in the sky as it would have been, whether we call it 6:00 or 7:00, but we can delay nighttime simply by changing the declared time.

Giving a name to something can also change its essence and give us power over it. People who were once thought to be getting senile as part of normal aging are now known to have Alzheimer’s Disease. Someone who hears nonexistent voices is not crazy but suffering from schizophrenia. Kids who once might just have been considered eccentric may now be diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Beyond identifying and naming real patterns of phenomena, we can also use changes in definitions to reposition something that might be considered negative into a positive. I remember a handout I received once from a parenting workshop that showed how we could reframe what might be perceived as a negative trait in our children as a positive: so kids went from being “stubborn” to being “persistent,” “anxious” to “cautious,” “aggressive” to “assertive,” the quiet child is “thoughtful” and the chatterbox is “highly verbal.” All these characteristics that might drive parents crazy when the children are young could lead to future success as an adult if directed appropriately. Therapists often use this technique of relabeling negative characteristics to reflect an underlying strength and building on that in a positive way.

Conversely, smoking went from something that was a symbol of coolness to being a proxy for the tobacco industry’s desire to enslave teens in a lifelong addiction. Bronzed skin went from being a “healthy tan” to “sun damage.” The current battle over the definition of marriage is another example of the power of semantics to affect people’s everyday lives.

Words and their socially agreed-upon definitions often have implications beyond the dictionary. We can try to change those meanings through social marketing and harness the power of words to bring about positive health or social change.

Photo Credit: wiccked

Bumper Sticker Solutions


I drove behind a car yesterday that made me wish I had my camera with me. It was a city parking enforcement vehicle, sporting bumper stickers like those I’ve often seen on other municipal vehicles such as police cars and utility trucks. But this one took it to another level. Plastered across its bumper were stickers that said:

  • DARE to Keep Kids Off Drugs
  • There’s No Excuse for Domestic Violence
  • Don’t Drink and Drive (or something to that effect)

and the kicker, delivered entirely straight-faced:

  • Keep Your Eyes on the Road.

This got me thinking about bumper stickers, as well as the context in which our messages may be seen. Bumper stickers are about as low-tech as you can get, but they’re not going away. I’m always amazed that people are willing to put a semi-permanent adhesive slogan on their otherwise unblemished car, especially when it’s for a political campaign that’s of a limited duration. That takes commitment.

And that commitment is there because the bumper stickers people choose to put on their cars are firmly tied up with issues related to their identity. Cars are often an extension of our personality, and a bumper sticker extends that even farther beyond the automotive brand to get at our core values. That’s why so many bumper stickers are political or cause-related. They can reflect the personality and values of the car’s owner, whether idealistic (“Visualize World Peace”), witty (“Visualize Whirled Peas”) or obnoxious (“F– World Peace, Visualize Using Your Turn Signals”). Bumper stickers can also become a shorthand marker for being part of a “tribe” — such as the rainbow symbol, the ichthys “Jesus fish,” or the Darwin fish. If you need car dealerships near you, take a look at Buy Here Pay Here dealerships can be your last, and perhaps best resort.

From “Save the Whales” to “Love Animals, Don’t Eat Them” up to the current “Coexist” (with the letters made from symbols of different religions), bumper stickers have been used as part of cause-related communication and marketing campaigns over many years. Some merely promote the name and tagline of a nonprofit organization, while others try to change attitudes and behaviors.

Here are a few tips for using bumper stickers for your issue:

  • Make your words count. Like a billboard, you only have a small number of words to get your point across. Unlike a billboard, you don’t have space for graphics and need to rely on the words to convey the idea without visuals. Make sure your message is clear and succinct, and make it memorable. The best bumper stickers make you laugh and then think.
  • Make it visible. The worst bumper stickers make you squint and mutter, “What does that say?” as you drive by. Use high-contrast dark lettering on light colors or light lettering on a dark background. Don’t try to fit so many words on the sticker that you have to use a small font.
  • Make it ubiquitous. Figure out ways to encourage your supporters to put the bumper stickers on their cars. Give them away, provide incentives, pay college students to stick them around, use window clings if a sticker is too permanent for them… The more people see your bumper sticker, the more it will provide confirmation that support for your cause is socially acceptable and desirable.
  • Make it a social object. Bumper stickers can be conversation starters or a way for people to identify common interests. In junior high, a KLOS bumper sticker on our Pee-Chee folders was a coveted status symbol designating that we were cool enough to listen to that radio station.
  • Make it build curiosity. Drive around the US enough, and you will eventually see a car sporting a bumper sticker that says, “Where the heck is Wall Drug?” If you don’t know the answer, the more you see cars with that sticker, the more it will continue to irritate those three neurons in the back of your brain devoted to the idea of Wall Drug. If you ever have the opportunity to find out the answer, you will do so just to satisfy that nagging curiosity. (Here in California, I often see bumper stickers that say, “I saw the Mystery Spot.” Similar idea.) Ask a question. Make people wonder about the answer.
  • Make it special. If your bumper sticker is one of 20 (or even four) covering the back of someone’s car, the message will be diluted (see the photo above). For more impact, your bumper sticker should be the only one on the car. Encourage your supporters to get rid of extraneous stickers so that yours will stand out.

Pundits often decry politicians’ use of “bumper sticker solutions” to tackle tough issues. While bumper stickers may not actually lead to world peace (or whirled peas, for that matter), they can be an effective way of building awareness of your cause and perhaps getting people to think about it in a new way.

UPDATE: Rob adds a couple more excellent tips in the comments:

  • Make it memorable. A message that’s genuinely funny, for instance will stick to more than just bumpers; it will be something people remember, even repeat to their friends. And that can magnify its impact tremendously.
  • Think about the stickee. When someone slaps a sticker on their bumper, it isn’t just to say something about their cause; they’re taking on a little piece of your identity as their own. What does sporting this bumper sticker say about your supporter? How can you make that statement as appealing as possible?

Photo Credit: Thomas Cizauskas

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Position Your Leader as an Expert

Guest Post from Sandra Beckwith:

I often hear from nonprofits asking how they can position their executive director as the local expert on the organization’s key issue. Here’s what I tell them.
First, make sure that if your leader isn’t already an expert, he or she is taking steps to become one. This is one of those situations where you don’t want to use smoke and mirrors.

Then showcase that expertise using specific steps designed to provide opportunities to share that knowledge and experience freely, which is essential. Start with these steps to develop expert credibility:

  • Make your leader the exclusive spokesperson for your organization, whether it’s for media interviews, public service announcements, or advertisements.
  • Send your local media a letter listing story or news segment ideas that your leader can contribute to as a resource. Attach your director’s photo and narrative bio, a backgrounder on your issue, and a brief history of your organization.
  • Produce a relevant booklet with tips or advice from your leader. Identify your executive director as the author. Send it to the media with a news release announcing the booklet’s availability; distribute it to stakeholders; promote it in your newsletter and on your Web site.
  • Continually schedule speaking engagements for your executive director with community groups.
  • Write timely op-eds with your leader’s byline for the newspaper as frequently as possible.

These and other steps executed well locally could help your leader become recognized as an expert nationally, as well. While that might not be your goal, it certainly won’t hurt your local efforts.

Got a media relations or publicity topic you’d like to know more about? Drop me a line at sb@sandrabeckwith.com and I’ll try to answer it here.

Tips for Writing Op-Eds That Get Published

Guest Post from Sandra Beckwith:

Op-eds – essays that appear opposite the editorial pages of newspapers – are powerful communications tools for nonprofit organizations working to influence public policy or initiate change. But too many local nonprofits miss some of their best opportunities to inform readers through these opinionated essays.

National headline news stories give nonprofits the hook their opinion pieces need to catch an editorial page editor’s attention, but we don’t always take advantage of this because we can’t react quickly enough to write and place an essay when it’s still timely. That’s why I recommend having at least one op-ed written in advance to use when a news event brings the op-ed’s topic to the public’s attention.

Recent headlines provide examples. Last week’s comments from the director of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, that we are “entering a period of increased risk” for terrorist attacks provided an opportunity for organizations with opinions on this topic to place op-eds about whether we are doing enough to protect Americans at home – or whether we should react to Chertoff’s “gut feeling.”

Here are 10 tips for writing effective op-eds you can update according to the news story for immediate publication:

  • Read the publication you’re submitting to. You want to be familiar with its style and tone as well as the types of op-eds it typically runs.


  • Introduce yourself to your newspaper’s op-ed page editor by telephone or e-mail and request the publication’s op-ed guidelines. Then follow them.



  • Determine your goal. What do you want to achieve through your op-ed? Do you want people to behave differently or take a specific action? Keep this goal in mind as you write.



  • Select one message to communicate. Op-eds are short – typically 800 words or less – so you have room to make just one good point.



  • Be controversial. Editors like essays with strong opinions that will spark conversation.



  • Illustrate how the topic or issue affects readers. Put a face on the issue by starting your essay with the story of somebody who has been affected or begin with an attention-getting statistic.



  • Describe the problem and why it exists. This is often where you can address the opposing viewpoint and explain your group’s perspective.



  • Offer your solution to the problem and explain why it’s the best option.



  • Conclude on a strong note by repeating your message or stating a call to action.



  • Add one or two sentences at the end that describe your credentials as they relate to the topic.


With this approach, when your issue is suddenly making headlines, you can write an introduction that connects the news to your essay and e-mail it to the editor quickly.

Questions? Contact me at sb@sandrabeckwith.com.