Do the Maths

September 17, 2013

By: Nick Andrews

I often find myself having to explain what we do to rooms full of empirically-oriented people. Engineers, in particular, can be tricky, tending to regard communications as, at best, a black art and, at worst, actively and terminally fluffy.

Under these circumstances, I find it best to seek recourse in what an American friend of mine refers to as “high school math”. I ask the room if they know what the equation p=f/a stands for. Worryingly (some of these people build bridges for a living), there is usually a certain amount of brow-furrowing before someone comes back with, “yes, that’s the equation for pressure”. Pressure=force/area, which means that to exert the greatest amount of pressure, you need to exert the largest amount of force on the smallest possible area. This is why if a woman (or, I suppose, a man – let’s not pre-judge) steps on your foot wearing stiletto shoes it hurts more than if she is wearing flats – the force (her weight) is the same, but the area is smaller.

So, I tell them, this is what we do as communicators. We exert pressure on a decision point, or multiple decision points. It could be a regulator, about to decide whether or not to ban a product. It could be an editor of a national newspaper deciding whether or not to run a story, or a consumer (or many consumers) deciding which product to buy, or whether to purchase something in the first place.

In all cases, the trick is to determine what it is which will exert force. Is it peer group pressure? In which case, perhaps social media is the answer, building awareness and approval within online communities. Is it public opinion? In which case, a national media campaign might work. Or maybe, it’s the weight of scientific opinion which will add extra and necessary force? Then, we’re looking at advocacy programmes, thought leadership and the use of research.

Decisions, one way or another, are normally where the interests of our clients lie. Each element of the communicators arsenal has the potential to bring pressure to bear on that decision point, and therefore to have a business impact. As I say to my engineering friends, who by this time have normally had a ‘light bulb’ moment, it’s all about doing the maths.

Nick Andrews is FleishmanHillard’s Reputation Practice Leader for EMEA. You can reach him at