Don’t believe everything you think, Carl Davidson, Director of Strategy and Insight

11 Nov

Written by Carl Davidson, Director of Strategy and Insight, Research First


For all of us who work with ideas for a living, we need to be aware that we often come to cherish our ideas simply because they are our ideas. This leads to a serious problem known as ‘confirmation bias’. To see this in operation, try a simple accounting question: A bat and ball cost a dollar and ten cents. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

If you’re like most people, you will think the ball costs ten cents. Except, it doesn’t. It costs five cents (5c for the ball, $1.05 for the bat, and $1.10 all together). If you thought it was ten cents, this is because your brain looked for reasons to confirm your intuitive response rather than challenge that response.

During World War 2 the RAF became increasingly alarmed at how many aeroplanes they were losing to enemy anti-aircraft fire. To address this problem, they planned to increase the amount of bulletproof armour carried on the planes. But because armour plating is heavy, and weight is always at a premium with aeroplanes, knowing where to put that extra armour became a pressing question.

The engineering solution seemed straightforward – it was a simple matter to study where the planes were most damaged and add armour to cover those areas. By studying enough planes, clear patterns of damage could be identified.

This approach makes intuitive sense but, as the mathematician Abraham Wald pointed out, it was also seriously flawed. The problem with the engineers’ thinking was that it was based on studying the aeroplanes that made it back to base. By definition these were planes that had been shot and still managed to fly home. In this regard what their study showed was exactly where the RAF didn’t need to add any more armour. The proper solution, Wald pointed out, was to only add armour to those areas where the returning aeroplanes had no damage.

In a similar vein, William Faulkner once said that if you aspired to be a great writer then you needed the courage to “kill your darlings”. What he meant was that writers needed the courage to discard those parts of a story they had fallen in love with that were no longer useful to the story. We hear the same advice today whenever we are encouraged to ‘edit ruthlessly.

Faulkner’s advice and Wald’s reasoning hold an important lesson for all of us. Whenever we make a decision we need to guard against ‘confirmation bias’. The ‘confirmation bias’ trap is another one of the many ways our brains fool us into thinking we’re smarter than we really are. David McRaney, author of You are Not so Smart, describes confirmation bias as “a filter through which you see a reality that matches your expectations”. In other words, it’s the tendency to look for confirmation for our pre-existing ideas while ignoring any evidence that might disprove those ideas.

What this means is that all of us assimilate new information in a way that confirms our existing view of the world. Or, as John Kenneth Gaibraith warned us “faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof”.

Interestingly, the better educated you are, the more likely is that you’ll fall for the confirmation bias trap (and the more certain you are that you won’t).

Overcoming confirmation bias takes a deliberate effort but starts with three easy steps.

  1. The first step is to be aware of how common it is (there’s an old joke in psychology that once you start to look for confirmation bias you start to see it everywhere).
  2. The second step is to ask yourself ‘what would it take to prove this idea wrong?’. This is where Faulkner’s advice to ‘kill your darlings’ is particularly useful. It reminds us not to get hung up an idea simply because it’s our own.
  3. The third step is to remember that confirmation bias tends to get be amplified in group settings. If you need to make a decision in a group setting, get somebody in that group to play the role of the Devil’s Advocate to argue against the decision you’re leaning towards. One easy way to do this is to make explicit the assumptions the others in the group might have taken for granted. This is where Wald’s reasoning is so useful, as it reminds us to think about the planes that didn’t make it home.

Image credit: iStock

PRINZ Senior PR Insight blog series: Catherine Etheredge, NZ Super Fund

30 Oct

Throughout 2015 PRINZ will be interviewing senior PR practitioners about their career, discovering what they believe is the key to being successful in PR, what tips they were given and have used in their career, and what they expect of a junior PR practitioner in 2015. 

Catherine Etheredge

This month we feature Auckland-based Catherine Etheredge, Head of Communications at NZ Super Fund – a $29 billion global investment fund set up by the Government to help pre-fund universal superannuation. Prior to joining the Fund in 2012, Catherine headed up the Communications team at Ports of Auckland. She was formerly a senior consultant at SweeneyVesty.

How long have you worked in PR/Communications industry?
My whole career – I started at the Land Transport Safety Authority (LTSA) in 1996, straight out of university.

What attracted you to the industry?

I had studied English, and I felt public relations would be a good fit with my skill set. I’ve also always had an interest in the media and politics. Over time, I’ve become interested in business as well. One of the things I like about my current role is the government/business mix.

Did you complete tertiary study? If so, what and when?

In the 1990s, I did a BA Hons at Canterbury, followed by an MA Hons at Auckland – both in English literature. My Masters dissertation was on the use of humour in a group of contemporary English plays, but prior to then I had focused mainly on American literature and the 19th century novel.  I still love reading, and am in a wonderful book club.

While I was working in my first job, I also completed Margie Comrie’s  post-grad paper in public relations through Massey University.

What do you think is the most significant industry change you’ve experienced?

When I started work at the LTSA we had no mobile phones, no website and no external email. Media statements were sent out – often painfully – by fax.  Advances in technology aside, I do believe the industry has matured, diversified and become more credible over time.  It’s good to see the increased focus on areas such as stakeholder engagement and internal communications.

What has been your favourite piece of work to date?

There have been lots of great experiences, and I loved my job at Ports of Auckland, but working for the Eden Park Trust Board on the 2011 Rugby World Cup waterfront stadium debate, while I was with SweeneyVesty, was a highlight. I enjoyed the intensity and high stakes nature of it, and the way the work spanned media, community, stakeholder and government relations. We had a great team (Carly Young, Linda Clark, Hamish McDougall and Madeline Haden) and two fantastic, up-for-it clients in Rob Fisher and John Alexander.

What is the most valuable piece of career advice you’ve ever been given?

Early in my career I was offered the opportunity to manage communications for a project that I believed wasn’t going very well. I recall asking my manager whether it was “a dog that won’t bark”. She said yes, but advised me to take it on and said that I would learn more from one really difficult job than any number of easy ones. It was good advice and while I lost more than a year of my life to what was an all-consuming project, I know I made a difference and the experience was invaluable. Difficult issues give you an opportunity to show your mettle as a communications professional. I’ve been lucky to have a few come my way.

Who do you look up to/who did you look up to as a young practitioner?

Robyn Johnstone, my first manager at the LTSA, was a wonderful person to work for – warm, supportive and encouraging.  It was a great way to start my career – Robyn, and CEO Reg Barrett, gave me confidence that I had chosen a career I would be good at.

I learned an enormous amount from Greg Fahey at SweeneyVesty – a great strategist, cool head under pressure and able to give robust advice to clients while always being nice about it. I also admire Jane Vesty’s and Brian Sweeney’s achievements in building a long-lasting and successful company, and their support of the arts along the way.

What do you expect of young practitioners that they may not be aware of?

I expect young practitioners to be interested in the world, and able to discuss current events in business and politics. In my current role, I also look for people who are comfortable with numbers and who are prepared to put the effort in to understand complex financial concepts.

I also value a good quality arts or science degree. By all means, couple or follow this with something more obviously commercial, but don’t neglect your broader education in favour of vocational training too early on.

Native advertising: what it means for PR practitioners and our clients

28 Oct


Written by Anna Radford, FPRINZ, Cadence CommunicationsImage for Anna's blog post


The news media’s increasing move towards content commercialisation and commoditisation has raised a number of ethical and practical questions.  We all know it is happening but the landscape is constantly shifting and changing, making it difficult to get a handle on what’s really going on.

How does the paid content model work?  What does it cost? What does this shift mean to us as PR practitioners?  Is the age of ‘pure’ editorial over? Are media releases heading the same way as dinosaurs? What should we advise our clients / employers?  Is native advertising ethical?  Are organisations dancing with the devil if they start dealing with media on a paid basis? Are they shooting themselves in the foot if they don’t?

These are some of the many questions I wanted answered when attending September’s CAANZ session Who’s buying? The future of content commercialisation in NZ. And I was not alone, if the large number of PR and advertising professionals in attendance was anything to go by.

The below-mentioned panel, chaired by Ben Fahy, editor and associate publisher of NZ Marketing and, shared their thoughts on commercial imperatives versus a purist approach, where the lines sit between earned and paid media, and the resulting ramifications for organisations and agencies.

Panellists were quick to point out that paid content is nothing new, with advertorials having been around for the best part of a century.  What has changed is the type, prevalence, pervasiveness – and in some cases, subtlety – of the commercialised content models now on offer.  For example, Tim Murphy, noted that the NZ Herald has identified that it has six different types of content categories on a continuum from news to advertorial.

Traditional news organisations are under threat.  Their survival depends upon generating more paid content so it’s here to stay, whether we like it or not.  It’s a new and rapidly evolving model and the media have no more idea than we do about where it’s going and what shape it will eventually take.  There’s a lot of experimentation going on to find out what will work and what will not but some common themes are emerging.

Panellists were unanimous that there’s nothing wrong with having paid content – so long as it is transparent to readers and viewers.  Although they all pushed this point, I suspect there are gaps between theory and practice.  This suspicion was borne out when one panellist mentioned in passing that paid content was not always transparent in their media.

There are clearly some ethical grey areas and it will be interesting to see how these play out over time. Several panellists commented that their organisation had been challenged on social media when they had been perceived to stray too far into blurred territory, but in my view, more robust systems are needed than simply relying on consumer complaints to keep them honest.

All panellists agreed on the importance of having a good fit between paid (and unpaid) content, the media’s own brand and the media’s audience.  Ignoring this will undermine the media’s and the content provider’s brands and alienate their audiences.

As content generators this means that public relations practitioners and advertisers will need to be more creative about how to get our client’s / employer’s brands into editorial copy, telling compelling stories while remaining true to all brands concerned.

We must also support our clients / employers to relinquish a degree of control, which could be difficult for those who are used to always promoting the positive.  As Simon Wilson put it: “I get really frustrated by old fashioned advertorial pages; they’re dull and boring. Clients use that absolute control over the content to make what’s so obviously an ad.  [You need to] understand the importance of taking an editorial lens rather than trying to shoe-horn the content in. Don’t be obvious in pushing your own barrow.

Simon’s comment made me realise that things aren’t actually so complicated at all.  Sure, we are in the middle of a huge shift, with all of its challenges and uncertainties.  But in many respects nothing has changed.  That’s because we as PR practitioners still need to be clear about what our client/employer wants to achieve from the communication exercise.  We still need to understand our media and consumer stakeholders and their needs and motivations.  And we still need to create clear, compelling and relevant content.

What’s so new about that?

The panel

Tim Murphy, former editor-in-chief of the New Zealand Herald, former chair of the national Media Freedom Committee and executive committee member of the Press Council

Ellen Read, National Business Editor, Fairfax Media NZ

Duncan Greive, freelance journalist and editor of culture website The Spinoff

Simon Wilson, Metro’s outgoing editor

Alana O’Neill, Head of Integration, Mediaworks

Image credit: iStock

Social Media in Internal Communications

14 Oct

Written by Alexander Danne, Unitec Institute of Technology Graduate

2014-10-23 ANZ visit with Unitec

Over the past two years I studied International Communications at Unitec Institute of Technology, Auckland. While I was working with PRINZ as a Communications Assistant I researched, as part of my masters’ degree, the impact of social media in the corporate environment by examining two case studies located in the corporate economic sector in Auckland. While recognising the challenges of democracy in the workplace, my research focuses on how social media can enable workplace democracy as well as participation and engagement within organisations.

Please find the full study here:

The findings of my study indicate that both organisations have a hierarchical internal makeup, which is heavily based on policies, guidelines and top-down communication structures. Internal communication tools are deeply embedded in the communication culture of the organisations and it seems that employers use such tools with a different perspective and understanding than employees. My research further reveals an ambiguity in dealing with new networked communication tools and outlines difficulties within the implementation process. Generational gaps, ineffectiveness and lack of integration of new workplace communication tools for employees are factors that make implementation difficult.

Network enabling tools, such as internal social media, have great potential to establish a space that can have the power to change the hierarchical structure and enable engagement in the workplace. Through online communities and knowledge bases, employees can engage with each other and gain knowledge about the workplace beyond the scope of duty as well as earn responsibility within the workplace. The tool of internal social media cannot itself make a workplace democratic or employee friendly, but it can provide options for staff to use; that is, the tool can be used either way.

My research identified five key elements of workplace democracy (empowerment of employees, on-going participation, claim over responsibility, contribution towards the workplace, and network orientation); through the results of my research it became evident that the corporate work environment did not succeed in fulfilling these elements. However, the perspective of democracy in the corporate work environment is a new development that has come with globalisation, technological evolution and a change of the public sphere itself. In addition both organisations made a great effort to incorporate dialogue, engagement and other workplace democratic practices into their work environment, which was their reason for implementing the new internal social media tool in the first place. It became evident that such a tool cannot implement workplace democracy or connection, but it can help or hinder an already excising democratic culture. My research concluded that if the organisations already value dialogue, engagement and a two-way communication flow, an internal social media tool can certainly help.

PRINZ Senior Practitioners’ Event guest blog three: Wicked Problems are for leaders

7 Oct

Written by Tim Marshall, LPRINZ, Communication by Design


How often do you hear the refrain “public relations should be at the top table”? I have many times. Well wicked problems could be the opportunity to secure your place there folks. Are you ready?

According to Keith Grint, Professor of Public Leadership and Management at Warwick Business School, wicked problems are the domain of leaders.

In his provocatively named address, Wicked Problems and Clumsy Solutions, Professor Grint defines three different forms of authority – Command, Management and Leadership – each appropriate for different situations. (See


For example: The Command style of authority is used by armed forces or emergency services where immediate responses to orders from above are needed to respond effectively to critical situations.

The Management style is typical of “business as usual” production, be that a factory, a mine or a surgical operating theatre.

Leadership is required for wicked problems which, by definition, have no known solutions. The leader’s job is to ask the right type of questions and engage in high levels of collaboration. I say this creates opportunities for people who are expert at stakeholder engagement – surely a role for PR and communication management practitioners.

National security consultant Steven Nixon’s views complement Grint’s. He says wicked problems are a feature of our networked world and involve many stakeholders with shared power arrangements. “The part we struggle with is stakeholder participation,” he says. Again I say this opens the door for PR practitioners to use our skills and further develop our expertise in this space.

As Nixon’s highly watchable five minute YouTube presentation points out, what passes for stakeholder participation is often posturing, lobbying, horse trading, filibustering and fear-mongering akin to an episode of Survivor. (See

By contrast, he says, stakeholder participation should be characterised by lateral thinking, authentic conversations, active listening, empathy, suspended judgment and trust.

“We still need experts who can design technical solutions … but we also need expert teams that can design the stakeholder collaboration process.”

The PRINZ Senior Practitioners’ Event brings together people from various disciplines who deal with wicked problems and/or are developing techniques to address them. Organisational leaders need help to engage with stakeholders to address wicked problems. This event will help you step up to the plate.

Register here for the Wicked Problems – Senior Practitioners’ Event – non-members in the industry are welcome.

Image credit: iStock

Event Management blog series – Where does creativity come from?

29 Sep

Written by Kathy Cunningham, empire PR


If you are struggling to solve a problem or come up with a really amazing idea for your next event, how do you do this?

How much time do you spend brainstorming and just not coming up with the right answer?

Although I am a strong proponent of group discussions to debate, think and play with an idea, I also believe that shower moments are significant!

When was the last time you had an ‘AHA’ or ‘Eureka’ moment?  Where were you when this occurred? I will take an educated guess that you were out for a walk, taking a bath or thinking of something else.

So, where do these ideas come from?  I believe that creativity is all around us – in the music we listen to, the images that inspire us and the people that challenge and support us to do great things.

We have so much information in our brain, and so we concentrate on the thing we are trying to solve. However, I have found that when we walk away from our desks, the solution comes.

I hope that I am not making this sound too easy, it isn’t. Finding the right creative solution takes time, practice and perfecting the art of play.  This is something we will focus on during the Event Management Master Class.

Kathy will be presenting the ‘Event Management Master Class’ course on 15 October. Register here.

Image credit: iStock

Event Management blog series – We need to celebrate more

18 Sep

Written by Kathy Cunningham, empire PR

Business concept vector illustration: Teamwork is a winning combination

I have been spending time in Whanganui facilitating a series of Event Management Training Sessions to an eclectic, interesting and passionate group of people.

During the last of the four sessions, we celebrated the team of people who have recently won “Best Regional Event” at the NZAEP Awards. The Cemetery Circuit is a motorcycle race held on Boxing Day since 1951 that brings international media attention and generates economic activity to Whanganui.

As our group learned more about the event and the challenges they faced we also celebrated their successes – the award, history, heritage, passion and determination to succeed.

When was the last time you recognised all the hard work and said thanks to your team and stakeholders?

What will you do to celebrate your next event success?

In this series of blogs, we will look at several topics that will be covered in the Event Management workshop hosted by PRINZ and facilitated by me! Next week’s blog will look at the challenges we face when organising an event.

Kathy will be presenting the ‘Event Management Master Class’ course on 15 October. Register here.

Image credit: iStock


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