4 Mental Models For Successful PR Campaigns

The world can be a complicated place. We can tie ourselves up in knots trying to make sense of it, which is why mental models are a useful way of simplifying complexity.

Mental models don’t offer concrete answers, but they provide a framework through which we can make better decisions. And the bigger the toolbox of mental models, the more easily we can call upon those models to make more effective choices in both our business and personal lives.

Mental models can be applied to almost any discipline. Often, even if we don’t know how they work or even what they are, we subconsciously use them – but can’t put our finger on how we’re doing so.

For example, confirmation bias is a tendency to look for information that confirms what we already know. On a subconscious level, we all do this to some degree, but being aware of our biases means that we can overcome them and achieve better outcomes in business as well as our personal lives.

Another mental model is fundamental attribution error. We are quick to believe that someone is acting in a way because of fixed personality traits, whereas a lot of behaviour is situational. So, it’s best to keep an open mind and not assume that if someone behaves a certain way in one situation, they will behave exactly the same in another.

Mental Models And Public Relations

To run a good PR campaign you need to understand how people think. If you don’t have any interest on at least some level as to why people are how they are, you won’t go very far in PR. Anyone can fire off a press release. Not everyone can pitch successful stories time after time, run campaigns that resonate with a wide audience or build a strong network.

Mental models can help you build frameworks when it comes to succeeding in PR. Let’s take confirmation bias, as mentioned above. We all have this. But if you’re aware of this, you can overcome your own biases and think outside the box. This can help with pitching and help you be more creative when putting ideas together.

Here are four more mental models you can use for PR campaigns and pitching the media.

Circle of Competence

The circle of competence is using the knowledge you have to your advantage. This mental model was originally devised by Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger in relation to limiting financial investments in areas where individuals have little experience and focusing on areas where they have the most familiarity.  Whether in relation to investing, business or work, the mantra is “Don’t play games you can’t win.”

How do you know what your circle of competence is?

If you’re reading this, you’re likely interested in taking your PR and marketing strategy to the next level. You’re not looking to outsource, but keep the work in-house. The one advantage you will always have (that external PR companies don’t have) is that you know your business inside out. So you are already inside your circle of competence, because you have the specialist insider knowledge needed to succeed.

As a business owner, you likely are working within your strengths all ready. Perhaps you have many ‘hats’ as startup owners tend to. But to learn more about your circle of competence. think carefully about where you have an edge and what you enjoy doing. Most people building a business enjoy talking about what they’re doing enthusiastically and if that enthusiasm can be channelled into pitching to journalists that’s a good thing. Perhaps you love writing or thinking up creative campaign ideas. The point is to discover those leverage points (see next mental model) and use them to your benefit. Remember, you can keep expanding your circle of competence over time. Just don’t operate out of it until you’ve integrated your new skillset firmly within the circle.

Leverage points

What is a leverage point?

A leverage point is a place to intervene in a system’s structure where a small shift can produce big changes within a system. Systems thinking specialists have a great belief in leverage points. Systems thinking is a big picture approach to analysis that looks at the way parts of a system relate to each other rather than analysing systems by breaking them down into separate elements.

The idea is that if you apply your energy in the right place, you will be able to have more impact. The good news is your work should also become more effortless as you get rid of friction. The concept of leverage is embedded in everyday phrases and timeless stories we pass down over history. Think the magic wand in numerous fairytales. ‘The Golden Ticket’ in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. A pill to cure ageing. There’s also a never-ending supply of charlatans happy to take advantage of the very human need for quick fixes. But when applied consciously, leverage doesn’t have to be about myths and fast cures – it can be used as a way to work smarter.

Leverage, the 80/20 Effect, and reality

Entrepreneur Gabriel Weinberg talked about leverage in Author of Super Thinking: The Big Book of Mental Models. He referred to the Pareto Principle to discover the 80/20 effect in any activity and how to use this principle to increase leverage to avoid the sunk-cost fallacy.

“Select between options based on opportunity cost models. Use the Pareto principle to find the 80/20 in any activity and increase your leverage at every turn. Use commitment and the default effect to avoid present bias, and periodic evaluations to avoid loss aversion and the sunk-cost fallacy.”

Gabriel Weinberg, Super Thinking: The Big Book of Mental Models

Understanding leverage also requires being in touch with reality. Don’t get caught up in what you think you know – confirmation bias again – but instead work with the world, as Educator and Chair of philosophy department at University of California, Joseph Tussman, mentions:

“What the pupil must learn, if he learns anything at all, is that the world will do most of the work for you, provided you cooperate with it by identifying how it really works and aligning with those realities

            Joseph Tussman

Leverage and pitching

The concept of leverage can be utilised when pitching to journalists. Focus on discovering more about which publications best suit you. Instead of the ‘scatter’ approach (sending out a ton of press releases) get to know a handful – or even just one or two – prominent journalists in the relevant field. Discover more about them, where they hang out, what articles they prioritise. It may take longer to get your content published, but when you do, the results will be superior.

The same thinking is behind influencer campaigns. When talking about influencers today, we tend to think about digital campaigns. But influencers have always been used – think celebrities in car adverts since the advent of television. Influencers are leverage points, one person can reach hundreds of thousands or even millions of buyers for little effort. The initial work and time invested is into researching the influencer and when the choice is good, leverage can do the rest of the work.

Critical Mass

Critical Mass Concept Icon 3 Scales

Critical Mass is otherwise known as the tipping point. In social dynamics, critical mass is when something – such as a new idea, belief or technology – reaches a point where it becomes self-sustaining and is able to create growth on its own. Once you become aware of this mental model, it’s hard not to see it play out everywhere, especially when it comes to human behaviour. From why a pair of trainers are more popular than another to why revolutions happen and governments get overthrown, to investment opportunities to mass hysterias – you only have to open your eyes to see examples all around you.

Critical Mass and PR

The master of Tipping Points Malcolm Gladwell – author of The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference, breaks everything down in his book into a few specific points to explain how ideas take hold. He refers to The Law of the Few – “The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.” He could be talking about skilled social media marketers who make trends happen, or influencers or celebrities who stand out with their charisma in a sea of blandness.

He also mentions The Stickiness Factor. Successful campaigns need messages that resonate and stay in people’s minds. Think of the top three slogans that come to mind and ask why. Chances are they’re memorable and able to ‘stick’ easily. The third ingredient Gladwell talks about  is The Power of Context. This refers to the environment in which the product, trend or idea is introduced. The context needs to be right and sometimes timing is just off. If you have an inkling this is the case, it’s best to wait for the right context or find some way of manufacturing such a context.

Critical mass is a useful mental model to keep in mind when launching PR campaigns and to understand the wider world around you. ‘Going viral’ is just a modern fancy way of talking about critical mass. The principles are the same.

“When enough people (a critical mass) think about and truly consider the plausibility of a concept, it becomes reality.” Joseph Duda


As humans, we spend a ton of time thinking about what we want to do. But sometimes it can be more productive to think where we don’t want to end up – and do all we can to avoid that outcome. Imagine a world where everyone did this. One unintended consequences could be that there wouldn’t be enough risk-taking or innovation. On the other hand, maybe world peace would finally be a thing. Unlikely, but the point of the inversion mental model is to challenge our assumptions and to examine goals from another perspective. So instead of asking “how can I achieve a successful campaign outcome” ask “what behaviours would prevent success.” Eliminating what doesn’t work, will bring more clarity and focus to your daily actions.

Using the Inversion mental model for pitching

If you are pitching a story to a journalist you can use the inversion mental model to ask “what would stop the journalist wanting to publish this story.”

A few reasons could be:

  • It’s irrelevant to their readers
  • Your press release wasn’t clear
  • They didn’t see it and you didn’t follow-up

There could be any number of reasons your story doesn’t make the cut. The three above are some of the more likely reasons, so the more you avoid these, the more likely you are to succeed through a process of elimination. Taking away can be more efficient than adding.
Mental models will take you to the next level of thinking and can help you make sense of the world when looking for new trends and patterns as well as used on a practical level for media and digital campaigns. They can also be comforting as they can remind you that  fundamental principles can guide you through difficult situations and can also give you more insight into your own actions and make you more aware of secondary effects. Once you start to incorporate mental models into your every day life, you should start to see the benefits pretty quickly and once you do, you won’t want to go back to your old patterns of thinking.

Pitch Journalists With Confidence

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