New Zealand votes against new flag – and for inertia. The lessons for all PR-led change 
  • Posted 2 years ago

By Andy Green (SERIOUS Creativity Director)

The New Zealand public had a chance to decide how to brand themselves when asked if they wanted to change their national flag.

A majority voted for the status quo. Is this testimony to the existing flag design and what it stands for?

I thought change might be on the cards, if only from an embarrassing incident with my daughter’s Australian boyfriend when I mock-saluted what I thought was his flag in a Wetherspoons bar, only to be told through gritted teeth “That’s the New Zealand flag!”

Yet the vote of the majority of the New Zealand public, and I suspect a clue to the forthcoming EU Referendum, yet again reveals one of the most powerful dynamics in public relations and change is – inertia.

The fundamental truth of human nature: that even when facing a life or death choice, the choice elected by the majority is… to do NOTHING.

In seeking to create change in attitudes, opinions or behaviours your biggest obstacle is not alternative proposals for change. Your biggest mountain to climb is… inertia; people will opt not to make a decision, rather than taking action.

Inertia is not to be confused with apathy.

Inertia is defined as ‘the tendency of a body to resist acceleration’.

Apathy is defined as ‘an absence or suppression of emotion, passion or excitement’.

Inertia is a product of engagement with you, where they may be some initial excitement, passion and emotion but then lacks the contingent action to translate the interest into tangible outcomes.

So what is going on here, whether it is voting about the New Zealand flag or your next public relations programme?

A key principle in communications and marketing is that people don’t choose what is best: they choose what appears to be least risk. For communicators if you someone to change someone’s behaviours, attitudes, or opinions you need to ensure your change option represents least risk.

Psychologist John Leach of the University of Lancaster, England analysed the real-life reactions of passengers when faced with the situation of a potential aircraft disaster; the plane is still on the ground, but the cabin is filling up with smoke.

His study interviewed survivors from a number of incidents and its conclusions were remarkable. In response to perilous situations, according to Leach’s study, 15% of people will panic, 15% will take constructive action to respond to their environment and try to escape. The majority, 70% will just sit there, somehow hoping this new reality is not happening to them.

Yes, a majority of people will choose to sit and die, rather than take action. That’s right. DEATH is more acceptable than being seen to stand out and take action.

This is evidence of what is called the ‘normative heuristic’. In psychology, heuristics are simple, efficient rules which people often use to form judgments and make decisions. These mental shortcuts usually involve focusing on one aspect of a complex problem and ignoring others.

The people sitting still in the burning plane scenario are not unintelligent. Psychologists presume that people sitting still are somehow rationalizing that if they act and hope for ‘normal’, somehow ‘normality ‘will prevail, and so have to avoid making uncomfortable decisions.

According to French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, every one occupies a position in a social space, which consists of their social class, relationships and networks. In their lived people develop a set of behaviours, lifestyle and habits (which Bourdieu referred to as ‘habitus’) which will more than likely serve to maintain the status quo of the individual and their context.

Thus, people are encouraged to accept the social world as it is, to take it for granted, rather than to rebel against it, to counterpoise to it different, even antagonistic, possibilities.

In any situation you have three core responses:

  • active positively or negatively engaged – a small minority of 15%
  • a group distracted by other things – again a small minority of 15&
  • great inert mass in the middle – the 70%

My work also involves developing new ideas and ways of doing for community social capacity and collaborative working. (Check out the Barry IdeasBank – )

My experience, mirrors that of others in managing online communities. In any online social network you tend to get a ‘1:9:90 Rule’:

  • 1% of the community post
  • 9% will add to others posts
  • 90% lurk – passively watching others but taking no action themsleves.

The situation of online passivity is therefore even more stark – only 10% will take action with 90% just observing as spectators. (I assume the 15% of the group who would have been panicking in the plane scenario are not present in the online community, as it represents a distilled,  refined, self-selected group, thus precluding the minority of ‘panickers’.)

As a result of Leach’s study and the 1:9:90 Rule I’ve come to a conclusion that the overwhelming response state for the majority is to do nothing, or don’t stray from their existing behaviour pattern, and has led me to facetioulsy coin  ‘Green’s Law of Social Inertia’.

‘Green’s Law of Social Inertia’ states: ‘Only a minority – between 10-15% – will take action, while a majority – between 70-90% – will be inert, spectators to change. ‘

So, how do you get the majority of people outside the core 10-15% group to take action to a new innovation or change you want to see?

The answer is you don’t get people to change. Instead, you change their context.

During my career I have been heavily involved in public relations work in the field of urban and community regeneration work. I used to operate to a question, which I now recognise would lead me down a path of frustrated ambitions when I asked: ‘How do we get everyone to …?’

Now, having knowledge of ‘Green’s Law of Social Inertia’, I recognise that if you want to create change in a community, I would now pose the question as, ‘How do get the 10-15% of the community who will engage in change to …’

There is a lot however, to be said for inertia. Not making change can often be the optimum strategy.

For a majority least risk is represented by no change to their familiar, known, and what is perceived to be reliable. Change in contrast represents the uncertain, unknown, and untested.

Murphy’s Law – if things can go wrong, they will, has stood the test of time for many people. Inertia can often be the best possible route, even in the most difficult or trying of circumstance.

I muse how many politicians in the West wish they had stuck with the heinous regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq rather than now having to deal with the Isis regime in the region.

The benefits of adopting ‘Green’s Law on Social Inertia’ for public relations communicators, change managers or those engaged with innovation are profound:

  • You recognize the profound resistance to change not as a negative, counter force, being out in opposition to you, but rather one that is inert and inherent
  • Instead of beating yourself up in frustration that you are not engaging with the whole 100% of a population recognise the reality that only 10-15% will engage with change.
  • Rather than being lazy thinking there is only 15% you need to engage with, you need to redouble your energies and focus to ensure you engage and motive your Connectors
  • By focussing your precious energies and resources on the minority willing to engage for change you avoid wasteful diffusion and spreading your assets too thin.
  • By recognising that the majority will only take action when their context changes you change your messaging to focus on their change of context rather than repeating your same message for change
  • Your listening skills are enhanced as you listen in the first instance for clues for propensity for change among your target audience as well as their responses to your messages

For communicators inertia is a crucial element to identify and understand.

Recognising its existence, and how you need to focus energy and resource on the few, will enable you to achieve better results – and help to avoid burn-out, disillusionment and disenchantment with the whole change process.

So whether it is the New Zealand public voting to keep their flag, or even the majority of Scottish people voting to stay in the UK or any future change don’t look at the issue through just a Yes v No perspective, but also factor in inertia – the inconvenient fact that is not going anywhere.

Andy Green is a leading expert in brand storytelling, creative capacity building in communities or teams, and PR strategy.