Issues management can be difficult.  When the goal is to shape public opinion, especially with a highly emotional topic like protection of working animals, what is communicated is only one component of success. How, where and when this communication takes place is also important.

I just got home from vacationing in Charleston, South Carolina. If you’ve never been, you need to go. It is a wonderful place with great beaches and a rich and colorful history. To learn as much as I could about the City,  I took a horse-drawn carriage tour through Charleston’s historic district.

While I learned a lot about the city’s past, I also learned how the carriage company was successfully managing an emotional, and potentially business-killing issue.  

At the onset of the tour, before we even started down the street, Carol, our tour guide, turned around and said, “The horse-drawn carriage industry here in Charleston is one of the most regulated in the nation.”

She explained that Mac, the Belgian draft horse strapped to the front of our 16-passenger carriage, had come from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Mac and the other draft horses used by the tour company are bred to plow fields and can easily pull four times their own weight. However, City regulations dictate carriage horses are only allowed to pull three times their weight.

 “The horse-drawn carriage industry here in Charleston is one of the most regulated in the nation,” said Carol proudly for the second time. “This makes the work Mac is doing today like a vacation for him.” We were then off on the tour.

THE SIGHTS AND SOUNDS OF CHARLESTON

Learning about Charleston and how to handle a sensitive issue from our driver and tour guide

Up and down the streets we went. Carol, with a soft and comforting tone, gave us a history of the city, stopping every once in a while to let cars pass or to allow her passengers to get a better look at one of the sights along the way. About 40 minutes into the tour, she stopped once again. But this time her tone changed a bit. Her free-spirited way of talking morphed into a more serious tone. 

 “If I don’t address this now, I will have to at some point later,” said Carol, as her head turned to the left, focusing everyone’s attention on a colonial-style home adjacent to the carriage.

The home did not have any historical significance (other than obviously dating from the 18th century) or any unique architectural features. What it did have was a banner hanging from decorative wrought iron.

“Charleston: Humane Treatment for Carriage Horses Now!”

Carol explained how the tour company had reached out to the owner of the home, but the owner has refused to speak to them. She went on to say that this is really about not wanting tours constantly passing in front of the home.

 “And I don’t blame them,” empathized Carol. “I would not want to have people constantly passing in front of my place either.” She then said that no one takes better care of these horses than she and her company do.

 “In fact,” she went on to say for the third time, “the horse-drawn carriage industry here in Charleston is one of the most regulated in the nation.”

A STORY ABOUT HER LOVE OF HORSES

She then took a dramatic pause and said that she wanted to tell us a story.

She explained that a few years back, before she partnered with Mac, she worked with a horse named Jake. When it was time for Jake to retire, the carriage company had found someone to purchase Jake for $1,000. While the new owner would have given Jake a wonderful retirement, Carol was devastated.

Carol loved Jake, and they had a very strong bond. She could not even think about no longer caring for the horse. The problem was that she did not have $1,000. When her fellow tour guides, not only the ones she worked with but also those at competing tour companies, heard about Carol’s dilemma, they all stepped in.

They started a Go Fund Me campaign and were able to raise enough money so that Carol could purchase Jake, which she did. And with that, she turned around, and continued on the tour.

LESSONS LEARNED FROM CAROL

Her story not only created empathy for Carol, but illustrated how those who work in the carriage industry care about the horses.   Here is why Carol was so successful with shaping our opinion that horse-drawn carriage rides should continue to be allowed in Charleston.

1. She created a baseline of knowledge without talking about the issue.

By starting out the tour with concrete facts about how the horse was pulling 25 percent less than he is capable, she created a frame of reference we would subconsciously refer back to when this issue would be brought to our attention.

2. She allowed for a relationship to form.

The longer we were on the tour, the stronger our connection to Carol became. The way she interacted with us, and how she positioned herself as an expert solidified our belief in her as a source of credible information.

3. She redefined the opposition’s position.

By providing us a logical, alternative reason for the homeowner’s upset, it freed us from having a difference of opinion with the homeowner without any second doubts or guilt. 

4. She used a narrative to illustrate a point.

The most effective way to overcome cognitive dissonance—the psychological phenomenon that keeps a person from changing their opinion, even when presented with facts that clearly show their opinion is wrong— is to communicate through a narrative. She repeated the message three times. It takes repetition for a message to be heard, remembered and embedded into our subconscious. By repeating it three times, she started the process of making this occur.