You know what you know—and if you’re lucky, you know what you don’t know. But do you know what affects what you know without you knowing it?

Try saying THAT five times fast! It’s a mouthful. Lots of “knows” in there!

This might be easier: do you ever sit back and think about where your knowledge, decisions, and understanding are coming from—and if all of that information is accurate?

We all have internal biases and are prone to errors in decision-making. So do the people we work with.

And that means we often don’t know everything we really NEED to know about a situation we’re developing a plan for.

This is how the things going on inside our heads, and the things we have nothing to do with can influence the quality and success of our communications plans. Plus, we have to know how to mitigate the damage it can cause.

Our Internal Biases and Our Communications Plans

There are a whole lot of categories of things we don’t know. My personal list includes astrophysics, why it’s not legal to hunt squirrels for sport, and the economics of high-end children’s clothing. 

Narrowing it down would be helpful now; we’re talking about how the things we don’t know relate to our communications strategy, after all. That means both our internal biases and the external factors that can throw us for a loop when we don’t stay aware that we don’t know everything.

I mean, unless you’re me because my kid is still young enough to think I know everything. 

This happens a lot in politics and around the coronavirus. We find things that support the way we think and poo-poo facts that support a different opinion.

It also happens in parenting. For those of you who are parents, you know what I mean. I remember, before I was a parent, thinking awful and really judgy things about parents I’d see out and about. “Oh, I’d never let my kid throw a tantrum in a restaurant.” “Oh, technology is so bad for them. They won’t have phones or tablets.” “I don’t want them to be gender-focused and will prevent it.”

Yeah, that’s not how it goes…at all.

Of course, I am attracted to articles and research that shows technology is bad for kids and avoid the ones that say it’s actually OK. At the same time, there is absolutely no way to prevent them from using technology.

During the pandemic, my poor kid was on her iPad for nine or 10 meetings every day. She would complain about being screen tired. It was impossible to avoid screens while kids were being home-schooled.

Suddenly, all those judgy thoughts you had when you were childless no longer have merit.

Talking About Cognitive Biases

But what does this have to with cognitive biases? A cognitive bias is a systematic deviation from the norm of rationality in judgment. 

That is to say, cognitive biases are our minds playing tricks on us and convincing us we’re right without any good reason.

Confirmation bias is the first one on my list, and it’s when you approach an idea with an idea of the way things are or should be, and look for clues and signals that we’re right.

We want to be right so badly that we overlook contradictory information. You know exactly what I mean because it happens daily with everything that’s going on in our world.

Let’s say I was planning a social media campaign about squirrels and their crimes against humanity. I’ll research different articles, conduct interviews, and prepare the campaign.

But because I expect all of the information out there about squirrels to agree with me in that they are miserable vermin, I’ll be likely to completely overlook any facts, evidence, or stories that demonstrate they can be useful or helpful. I’d ignore the articles my friends send to me showing they’re cute and cuddly and sit like proper animals at tabletops to eat with tiny silverware.

Nope, I ignore those articles and only pay attention to the data that agrees with me. They’re not cute or cuddly and they don’t deserve to be revered. 

When it comes to squirrels, I am right and the people who think they are cute and cuddly are wrong, but if you experience confirmation bias about any other topic, you might find yourself missing valuable, relevant information.

This is a hard bias to overcome, but try to clear your mind of expectations in terms of how people will respond to a topic or idea, and rely on data that is, as much as possible, collected objectively. 

Thankfully my communications plan has nothing to do with squirrels and I can clear my mind to create something that isn’t full of my cognitive bias. It’s not easy, but it is doable.

And the Curse of Knowledge

Next on my list is the curse of knowledge.

Anyone who’s become an expert in their field suffers, to some degree, from the curse of knowledge. You spend so long learning and growing and developing opinions and understandings of the concepts you deal with every day, that you forget just how specialized that knowledge is. And that means you tend to assume that other people have the same or a similar basic understanding.

They don’t. And if you talk to them like they do, things go badly.

The curse of knowledge can wreak havoc on a communications plan when you talk over people’s heads—and that goes for your clients, executives, and colleagues as much as for the broader audience you’re communicating with.

If you don’t know what level of knowledge or understanding the target of your campaign is, ask them directly, or ask people who work with them. You want to meet people where they are, not shoehorn them up to where you are. 

What About Context?

But even when you have the best possible control over your own internal biases, you still have to be wary of the next element that can blindside you when it comes to your communications plans: the context you’re working in.

Wait, Gini, you might be thinking, I know what the plan is for. I know who’s involved, who it’s for, and what the goals are. How would I be surprised by the context?

I hear you. But it’s the fact that you think you know so much that’s going to trip you up! 

Often, our examination of the context for a given plan or campaign only includes the information we have easy access to—not everything that actually exists. We make assumptions about what is possible, what is available, and what people are going to think of it.

The problem is, we’re often wrong, and sometimes there’s less budget than planned, no one knows how a certain tool or technology works or a big competitor did almost exactly the same thing last quarter, and actually, the spokesperson we want to use is climbing Kilimanjaro that month.

This reminds me of the time, early in the days of my agency, we planned a Fire Ant Funeral at the Fire Ant Festival in Georgia. Our client was the creator of a fire ant killer which, if you live in the South, you know is a very necessary thing. I hate those little buggers! So our plan was to host a funeral for a fire ant, complete with mourners, a preacher, and a casket. We had every media outlet on the hook, with even Good Morning America set to do a piece. That was the morning President Bush took us to war.

So. Yeah. Talk about not examining the context appropriately. Had we done that, we would have seen the signs and, while we couldn’t have predicted it would happen that very morning, we could have had a plan B.

We went ahead with the funeral—and it was hilarious—but we ended up having to send b-roll to the confirmed media outlets and didn’t get nearly the same amount of traction as we had anticipated.

Create a Bias Checklist and Include Context

Always do a context audit with your clients or your leadership team, and key team members before starting any big plan or campaign.

Use a checklist and make sure you include external implications. Would the attempted coup last January have changed anything you needed to do? Many marketers shut off scheduled social media updates. We stopped producing content. What else might you have to do at times like this?

What if something bad happens globally (you know, like a country-wide shut down), as the media and experts predict? Is your communications program ready? What’s your backup plan if you have a webinar or a roundtable that day and something goes wrong in our country? How does the context of what’s happening in the world going to affect your plans?

Our brains are not reliable, so make sure you have everything you can think of on a checklist. This also helps to take the emotion out.

Make sure you have a good understanding of the goals, the people involved, the tools and technology that are relevant, the budget you’re working with, and the environment your plan is going to be working in—including all of the external things you can’t control.

You’ll probably never be able to know absolutely everything about a situation going in, but making a point, and having a SYSTEM for getting as much critical information as possible about the timelines, budgets, resources, and audiences you’re dealing with means you’ll make far fewer mistakes, and you can go back to stressing out about confirmation bias.

Have you ever been betrayed by a cognitive bias, or been absolutely blindsided by the information you really should have had at the outset?

The comments are yours…

Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She is the creator of the PESO Model and has crafted a certification for it in partnership with Syracuse University. She has run and grown an agency for the past 15 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.

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