03 July 2007

The Persuasion Business: Actions speak louder than words

If public relations is fundamentally about relationships, there are two words that are crucial to any relationship: reputation and credibility.

The two are linked, but let's take a look at reputation.

Reputation is an attitude held by an individual about another individual or an organization. An attitudes is set of beliefs, a sets of feelings. It will have positive and negative qualities: good versus bad, for example.

Attitudes are important because at some point they will drive or influence behaviour.

Behaviour is important because, at some point, the behaviour contained in our definitions of public relations is support.

If that sounds like your last undergraduate course in psychology or in political science, then don't be surprised. We are talking about human interactions - relationships between and among human groups.

While we all can have and likely have had short-term relationships, for most of us relationships tend to last over a long time. Some are constantly important, like say a relationship within a family. Others are intermittent, becoming important at some points in life while being in the background during other times. Inherently though, relationships tend to last in one form or another over a long time.

Relationships - like attitudes - are therefore likely to be dynamic. That is, they are likely to change over time based on any of a number of factors.

In another post, we'll discuss attitudes and behaviour in greater depth, but at this point let's stick with the catch-all term reputation and the connection to behaviour.

Attitudes are linked to behaviour in competitive situations, like the choice between one bottle of soft drink or another. Most of us are so familiar with these ideas that they seem obvious. But what about in a monopoly, like health care?

In the example used in the first post, we discussed at some length a current problem facing a health authority involving problems with important medical testing and public disclosure of information. In Newfoundland and Labrador, the health authority is a monopoly or part of a larger monopoly. If someone gets sick in eastern Newfoundland, and, like most of us, lacks the money to jet off to some other part of North America for care, it's not exactly like he or she can go to another health care provider to show displeasure in the way the testing issue was handled.

Absolutely correct.


This is a democracy and health care is provided from public funds controlled by politicians who periodically have to go to the polls. Those politicians need votes and those votes are held by people who will need health care at some point. If you doubt the connection, consider the 1997 federal election results in Newfoundland and Labrador. As much as anything else they were driven by public concerns over access to health care.

Now health care is entirely a provincial responsibility in Canada, but that didn't stop voters from making health care a major issue. The election results, translated into provincial votes by the nervous political operatives sent a disconcerting message to the provincial government. A provincial health minister was replaced. New funding turned up. Government organized a forum to discuss the issue and propose solutions. It was all very public and very obvious.

The problem didn't go away, although there was a decline in the very vocal criticisms of the health care system. Flip ahead to January 1999. Brian Tobin went to the polls looking for a second majority and his campaign launched on the heady promise of economic prosperity from offshore oil and the Lower Churchill. Everyone else was talking health care. Major shift in campaign communications including the hasty production of new television commercials highlighting social programs, especially health care.

Fast forward to 2007, another election year. Questions about breast cancer screening led to the appointment of a public inquiry headed by no less an authority than the most senior justice of the Court of Appeal (in terms of years on the bench) , the highest court in the province. In an unrelated matter that cropped up at the same time, health officials were given a mere two weeks to re-evaluate almost 6,000 radiology reports when concerns were raised about the competence of a radiologist at a rural hospital.

To forestall unwelcome voter behaviour - i.e. voting for the Other Guys - the governing party took swift action.


Implicitly, the politicians involved knew that attitudes wouldn't be adjusted merely by words. It wasn't good enough to say that things were fixed. Well, they tried that initially, along with some actions that likely dealt with the entire matter as far as the health care authority was concerned.

The problem was that the important attitudes aren't those of the senior managers of the authority. They like themselves anyway. Ask any of them how they do their jobs and they will tell you what a marvellous job they do, working long hours for little pay.

The problem lay in the simple fact that the attitudes that were important were patient attitudes. Those attitudes shifted, as we noted before, once it appeared that the health authorities had held back important information. More action - very obvious action - was needed.

Actions speak louder than mere words, especially when it comes to influencing behaviour.

Next time we'll look at credibility and what happens in the gap between what you say and what you do.

- srbp -