Everyone in public relations ultimately is in the persuasion business. Our role is to influence stakeholders to take action in ways that benefit the organizations we serve, and hopefully benefit society, too. That’s true whether the action is reaching for a consumer product on the shelf, engaging as an employee to support a new corporate strategy, or voting for a ballot initiative.
But what if no combination of rational or emotional appeals can persuade some stakeholders to accept your position? What if you’re at an impasse before you start?
As we collaborate more often with clients in the energy and utilities sectors, our Linhart PR team increasingly encounters situations like this. Some stakeholders – often a vocal minority – simply will not accept oil and gas production, for example, no matter how responsibly managed, nor the concept of investor-owned utilities and their obligation to produce a shareholder return.
What is the role of public relations when persuasion seems impossible?
Based on our experience in these sectors and others, we believe persuasion always remains part of the equation. It’s the target and nature of those persuasive efforts that must change.
It may not be possible to persuade a community or some of its elected representatives to accept responsible energy production that powers our economy, in which case it becomes necessary to rely on legal, legislative or regulatory frameworks. But persuasion helps create a climate of opinion – even if not everyone agrees – that can help lead to favorable results outside the court of public opinion.
Perhaps the most important use of our persuasive powers is when we convince the organizations we serve to operate collaboratively and in the most responsible manner possible in order to attain public consent. Can we reduce our impact? Can we increase the benefits we bring to host communities? Can we make compromises to secure our social license to operate without disadvantaging investors or other stakeholders?
The most impassioned advocates on any issue have many ways to dominate public discourse, shut down discussion and shout down moderate voices, from personal attacks and “doxxing” on social channels to sympathetic media coverage to street theater disguised as civil disobedience. For people in the persuasion business, the answer is not to give up, but rather to ensure our influence strategies are focused on stakeholders who matter and who are open to our views.