How to Generate Instant Credibility with Clients and Customers

    May 25, 2004

To understand how to generate instant credibility with the public, you must understand how people react to stereotypes, and how to use these reactions to your advantage.

Stereotypes are psychological habits that humans use as a form of shorthand to minimize conscious thought. They are defense mechanisms that allow us to size up the world quickly and efficiently, and sometimes erroneously if we fail to adjust our stereotypes to reality.

Test yourself. Think about these phrases:

* “Pro athlete.”

* “Terrorist.”

* “Boy Scouts of America.”

* “Porn star.”

* “Democrat.”

* “Southern Baptist.”

What images do these words create in your head? What attitudes and emotions to they provoke within you?

These words are stereotypes. And if you are at all well informed about the world around you, they will spark pictures in your head, and thus give rise to certain attitudes and emotions.

This is their function: To bypass the conscious mind.

There is nothing evil about this. Indeed, it is quite natural.

“Mental habits create stereotypes just as physical habits create certain definite reflex actions,” according to Edward L. Bernays, the father of public relations. “These short-cuts to reactions make it possible for the average mind to possess a much larger number of impressions than would be possible without them.”

According to the journalist Walter Lippmann, the 1920s social commentator who popularized the concept, stereotypes are the mental codes that “largely determine what group of facts we shall see and in what light we shall see them.”

For example, play the football fight song “Hail to the Redskins” to a large crowd in Washington, D.C. and you are likely to spark a cheer. Play the same song just 136 miles away to a crowd in Philadelphia, and you may spark a riot.

The song is a stereotype. It bypasses logic and goes straight to emotion. The reaction you provoke depends entirely upon the audience.

Understanding the role of the stereotype is crucial to any executive who wants to build a powerful reputation, and thus corporate prestige.

To build a powerful reputation, a corporation must learn to use current stereotypes to its advantage.

For example, if a stockbrokerage claims to be the premiere investment house in Texas, it should decorate its offices in a Southwestern style, not in a Wall Street style. Texans are extremely proud of their heritage. A company that claims a similar heritage will strengthen its credibility by looking Texan, and thus supporting the stereotype.

A doctor is not a doctor to the public without a stethoscope. A farmer is not a farmer without a tractor. A chemist is not a chemist without a test tube.

The human mind needs the stereotype to confirm credibility. Wise executives use this tendency to their company’s advantage at every point where their corporation and the public intersect.

It is equally important to avoid stereotypes when they threaten a company’s credibility, and to seek opportunities to create new stereotypes when it is to your advantage.

If an organization of any kind wants to build a powerful reputation with a herd within the herd, the most effective route is to align the organization and its messages with the stereotypes that the herd is most willing to embrace without question.

In this way, the organization can bypass conscious thought and move directly into ready acceptance and admiration.

Thus, if you want to build instant credibility with your customers and clients, you must carefully identify and exploit the stereotypes that will generate the emotion of trust among those clients and customers.

Rusty Cawley is a 20-year veteran journalist who now coaches executives, professionals and entrepreneurs on news strategy. He is the author of PR Rainmaker: Three Simple Rules for Using the News Media to Attract New Customers and Clients, available at To learn more about PR Rainmaking, visit