Many clients ask why positive news about their organization or company doesn’t seem to get much attention.  The answer is simple.  In public relations, message development, and elsewhere, negativity is more memorable.   And that’s why we are seeing so much of it in this political season.

Psychologists call this the negativity bias.   Negative messaging triggers feelings of anger, fear and anxiety—emotions that have helped humans survive over the centuries.   These emotions arouse the brain so we can take action: fight or flight to avoid something that might harm us.

The Negativity Bias

We tend to remember the insults that require action to defend against them, versus the compliment which does not.  Ruthann Weaver Lariscy, a professor in the department of advertising and public relations in the Grady College at the University of Georgia, in a discussion on negative ads in politics for CNN, notes that negative messages are also often more complex than positive ones,  meaning that the brain spends more time processing them, and that causes them to stick.   A negative message about a candidate, for example, usually implies some comparison, whether overtly stated or not, and that requires more effort to absorb.

So does this mean you should go negative?    Does it mean that you have to slam your competition?  No.  But understanding how our brains are wired to pay greater attention to the negative can help you frame messages to trigger emotional responses.

Make the Negative Work for You

1)  Understand what your target audiences value, in relationship to the cause you espouse or the products and services you promote.   Understand what keeps your audience up at night when it comes to your issues.  For example, your donors may not relate to the experience of homelessness, but they may be worried about their own jobs and economic stability and whether they will lose their home.  Or if your company makes face cream, your target user may be concerned about the effects of aging and what they believe they are losing as a result.  These concerns could provide a hook for messages for specific initiatives or campaigns.

2) Understand what you are FOR before going negative.  It is important to be clear about what you stand for and what values your organization or company holds.  Negative messaging may get attention and air time but, in the end, you have to have a cause or product from which people derive a benefit.  A mid-sized accounting firm, for example, may hold as one of its values the very personal way that it deals with and serves its customers.  In its messaging, it might emphasize that, unlike larger firms where the customer is just a number, they know all their customers by first name.  The negative differentiates the firm from the larger more impersonal firms while highlighting the virtues of the smaller firm.

3) Fear and anger really do work, especially on motivating people to do something quickly.  Some of the most effective fundraising campaigns have focused on what might be lost or in danger of fading away.  When Congress threatened to take away National Public Radio’s funding a few years ago, NPR saw its donations increase dramatically.    And conversely, when Bank of America said it would charge fees on debit cards, an act that reinforced an already commonly held perception that big banks were greedy, customers revolted and the bank reversed its position.  Similarly, Verizon dropped a plan to charge  a “convenience” fee for one-time bill payments within 24 hours after it was met with a storm of criticism—and an announcement that federal regulators would be taking a closer look.

As you consider your own organization or company’s positioning, understand the power of negative messages.  But use it carefully.  Triggering powerful emotions can lead to change and higher sales, but it can also backfire.

What do you think?  Does negative messaging work?