The ‘challenger’ role PR plays helps mitigate the likelihood of the detrimental effect of groupthink taking place. Evidence-based market research helps it do this, as does its role in identifying, exploring and articulating organisational narratives – a pillar of public relations and why it can help organisations engage with its stakeholders.

Challenging thinking helps strategic PR stop groupthink

Groupthink is an insidious organisational and human trait. It destroys both, primarily because individuals did not have the courage to articulate their convictions assertively enough and/or bullies acted to suppress perspectives alternative to the status quo, or what was deemed appropriate by the (enter drums of doom) ‘hierarchy’.

Groupthink characteristics include:

  • a desire for harmony in a decision-making group overriding a realistic appraisal of alternatives
  • the loss of individual creativity, uniqueness, and independent thinking.

Symptoms of groupthink include:

  • rationalisation
  • peer pressure
  • complacency
  • taking the moral high ground
  • stereotyping others
  • self-censorship (often the result of bullying)
  • the illusion of unanimity.

Two of the most oft-referred to examples of groupthink include:

  • Challenger Space Shuttle disaster: engineers knew about some faulty parts, but they did not want negative press so they pushed ahead with the launch anyway
  • Attack on Pearl Harbour: Japanese messages were intercepted by the US hierarchy; US Pearl Harbour officers were warned; but these officers failed to take heed of these warnings due to, among other reasons, complacency about the perceived intent of the Japanese.

Strategic power of public relations to stop groupthink

PR should be the master of evidence-based market research within organisations when it comes to reputation and stakeholder relationships. Formal research needs to be periodically undertaken (no less than every five years – and that’s being generous) to identify and explore:

  • best ways to communicate with target audiences
  • issues and individuals/organisations influencing, and of importance, to target audiences
  • status quo of knowledge of the organisation, perceptions towards it and behaviour related to what will benefit the organisation and its relationship with target audiences.

There should also be other, ongoing means of identifying target audience knowledge, perceptions and behaviour in regards to the organisation, both at an overarching strategic organisational level and at a more prosaic program/promotion level.

This information should be more than enough to, paraphrase an Australianism, ‘keep the bastards honest’.

In other words, make it crystal clear to (uh oh, drums of doom again…) organisational hierarchy what is and what isn’t acceptable to target audiences and what may impact on organisational reputation.

This is an example of the ‘boundary spanner’ dimension of the public relations discipline, where PR helps organisations and their stakeholders understand each other and build bridges between them.

Applying this methodology assertively and, yes, with bravery, will help the organisation not fall victim to groupthink.

Narrative building by PR: a tactical anti-groupthink weapon

One of the core strengths of PR is in telling stories, articulating narratives. An excellent organisational narrative will resonate with its stakeholders and, in many cases, prompt them to become organisational advocates. And a profoundly important element of creating narratives, not to mention an invaluable upside of public relations overall, is challenging the status quo by exploring the status quo’s rationale and adding value and perspective to it.

A result of this approach will be thought leadership content, certainly, but part of it is also articulating the organisational story – or manifesto even.

And whilst marketing can do this to a degree, the act of writing and exploring the different dimensions of an organisation – hence its positioning and differentiation – is generally the remit of public relations. I don’t think marketing does this; it essentially identifies opportunities for products and services, develops them then sells them – it isn’t really a profound organisational orthodoxy challenging type activity.

The ‘challenger’ characteristic of PR is an excellent way of enriching narratives. It deepens them and helps foster creativity. It is a fundamental way of building brands that has more meant that ‘logos’ and other such organisational accoutrements.

What other ways can you think of that public relations minimises the likelihood of groupthink taking place? Have you personally experienced groupthink in an organisation and can you tell us something about it? do you have an experience of challenging the status quo when building an organisational narrative and what was the outcome?

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