2020BlogPublic Relations / PR

Emotional appeal: dubious PR blah blah or communication prerequisite?

Let’s communicate facts, not emotions! When you suggest the addition of a few emotional elements to the fact-focused communication of scientific and environment-related projects, this is stakeholders’ standard reply. But is it true that emotions are not fact-based, and are they automatically an obstacle to objective reporting? Neuroscientists are pointing into a different direction.
What is emotional appeal?

People who believe that emotional appeal means covering every single one of their flyers with images of cute kittens and presenting all their scientific projects on their website like soap operas, including hearts, flowers, and the language of teen magazines – well, they are mistaken. According to neuroscientists, emotions are, first and foremost, nothing more than irritating stimuli. The goal of emotional appeal is neither to manipulate others by controlling their feelings from afar nor to shower them with corny kitsch. The goal of emotional appeal is to capture people’s attention at a level that enables them to register and process information.

Emotions are information’s trailblazers

Emotions are the key to our brain. We are showered with sensory input 24/7. To ensure that we do not go crazy, we depend on our brain’s ability to filter out “ordinary” stimuli (e.g. the sound of our breathing), and to make sure we do not consciously notice them. Stimuli that are “extraordinary”, however, can be of major importance to our survival (e.g. the squeaking brakes of an approaching car). So our brain’s limbic system’s full-time job is to differentiate between extraordinary stimuli deserving our attention and stimuli that need to disappear to “stimuli wasteland” without us noticing them. With regards to the communicative efforts of scientific and environment-related projects, the latter cannot be of any interest: After all, they want to communicate their important topics to the public. This means that even fact-focused stakeholders in environment-related projects cannot sidestep the limbic system acting as our perception’s gatekeeper. These things fact-focused experts like to frown upon, i. e. emotions, are exactly the key this gatekeeper wants to see. Without any emotions, information is simply not forwarded to the realm of consciousness.

Emotions are as fact-based as facts & figures

Emotional arousal is no new-agey, post-factual blah blah, but a mental process that evolution has proven to be extremely useful. It is characterised by a sudden activation of neural connections and related hormonal processes. Evaluations are the key element of the whole process: When a stimulus is received, an evaluation takes place: Is the situation harmful or beneficial? Cognitive long-term memory and short-term work memory processes are always involved in this decision. These processes happen unconsciously, but can enter into your consciousness. At that point in time, we call them emotions (e.g. fear, joy, anger, grief).

Emotional arousal goes hand in hand with internal and external reactions. These range from unconscious, reflex-based behaviour to emotion processing and control to so-called rational actions. So emotions per se are not irrational. Only the process of their evaluation can take place with more or less conscious cognitive input. As you can see, emotional appeal is no rebel approach if the goal is to raise awareness for an important topic, which will then be looked at in a more differentiated way in the next steps of communication.

Emotions improve memory performance

Emotions make it easier to store and later use cognitive and context-related knowledge. Because when you are emotionally aroused, situations are stored in your memory with a very high number of details. One reason is that extraordinarily strong neural connections are formed. Projects forgoing emotional appeal in their communication thus waste their content’s potential to be stored in the target audience’s memory in a sustainable and retrievable way.

Emotional appeal is no “kid’s stuff”

Many clients of Interessen Im Fluss realise over the course of their project that they are unable to reach important stakeholders when working with a purely fact-based communication approach. They intuitively feel that emotional aspects are missing from the way they share their content. However, they deem the use of tools that, to them, feel not fact-based inappropriate for their communication with adults, who seem to think and act rationally. In this situation, clients often propose: “We should do something for kids.” And then all we can say is: If kids are a useful and top priority target group for you, let’s go for it! If not, clients “shying away from emotions” should maybe try to wrap their heads around this: Emotional appeal is no childish add-on of high-maintenance PR gals, but an important prerequisite for a successful communication strategy – for adults, too!


The parts on neuroscience and information processing in the brain were taken from the following sources:

Esser, Hartmut (2005). Affektuelles Handeln: Emotionen und das Modell der Frame-Selektion. No. 05-15, Universität Mannheim.

Hu, H.,  Real, E., Takamiya, K., Kang, M.G., Ledoux, J. Huganir, R. Malinow, R. (2007): Emotion Enhances Learning via Norepinephrine Regulation of AMPA-Receptor Trafficking. Cell 131: 160—173. DOI 10.1016/j.cell.2007.09.017.

How to use emotional appeal

There is no denying that kittens and teen magazine language contain many attention-grabbing key stimuli. But many scientific and environment-related projects will not be able to identify with those. That is why the goal of Interessen Im Fluss is to find authentic starting points for project communication that will feel relevant and interesting to your respective target groups right away. Of course, the evaluation matrix of an engineer will differ from the one of Grandma Greta from down the road. Depending on whom you would like to get on board, you should be willing to adapt your approach to the different needs of the people you want to address to make sure that they are even able to take notice of the project’s information. Only with this basis in place will it be possible for them to also process the topic rationally down the line. Emotional appeal is a complex mixture of language (in images and texts) and the ability to put yourself into your target group’s shoes. The different options heavily depend on the medium that is being used. For this reason, it is very difficult to comprehensively portray all options here. But some possible tools are:

aesthetic images attracting attention

statements creating a contradiction

humour, because laughter is an expression of irritation, too (but in a fun way!)

statements underlining that people are personally affected

statements alluding to a current event or situation

personal appeal

portrayal of an approachable project team, e.g. using quotations

Would you like a pinch of emotions?

For the important topics’ sake, we can only encourage scientific and environment-related projects to become a bit bolder regarding the well-dosed use of emotional appeal. Interessen Im Fluss is happy to support you in the creation of your texts and PR formats. Check our services on PR!

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