by Jackson Murphy, Vice President
On March 9, longtime fans of Survivor and newcomers who binged the show during the pandemic (such as myself) will tune into CBS for the premier of its 42nd season. While the landmark series is most understood as a test of strategy, strength, and relationship-building, it is also one of communication.
Erika Casupanan, a communications manager of nearly 10 years and last season’s winner, proved this with outstanding gameplay supported by skills from her professional experience. Let’s take a look at some of the communications lessons in the show that help contestants outwit, outplay, and outlast.
Know your key messages, and make sure they are clear and compelling.
Whenever preparing for an announcement, interview, or any communication, it’s essential to deliver a set of clear messages that the audience identifies as your key points.
Survivor is often chaotic – with alliances, rules, and strategies shifting by the minute as participants are voted out of the game. But to win, finalists must argue why they deserve to be the Sole Survivor to a jury of contestants previously voted out, who in turn elect a champion.
Casupanan was exceptionally effective communicating her “lion in lamb’s clothing” strategy to the jury, a theme she discussed throughout the season. Using opponents’ underestimations to her advantage, she built solid alliances with people in danger of being voted out to strategically position herself for the end of the game: “Then I found myself in the majority alliance that dominated the late stage of the game,” she told the jury during the finale. “I knew no matter what combination of final five, I had set myself up with enough potential allies to know that I had a shot to sit in the final three.”
Casupanan weaved this overarching message multiple times into her conversation with the jury. This clear communication prompted jurors to praise and even repeat her strategy back to her as they asked questions before crowning her winner.
Anticipate questions. Prepare your response.
PR pros regularly advise organizations to think about what internal audiences, media, and other stakeholders might ask during news events, and particularly during crises. Doing so provides an opportunity to have a strong response ready for when the questions come.
In just about every Survivor episode, host Jeff Probst peppers contestants with questions about the day’s events, the politics of the group, and emerging strategies and alliances. The players who advance are usually those who are ready with answers that help them execute their game plan. At times, participants can derail their own strategies and say something that results in either themselves or one of their allies getting voted out.
Preparing for questions is also essential for Survivor finalists trying to win the game. In a post-finale Q&A with Entertainment Weekly, Casupanan discussed how her professional experience helped her prepare a winning strategy with the jury: “as someone who works in communications, I anticipate, ‘Okay, if you are in an interview situation, what are the potential questions they would ask?’”
Good communication is just as much about understanding and analyzing the information coming your way as it is sharing something verbally or in writing. Effective communicators know their audiences, listen to the perspectives of their stakeholders, and learn about the issues they are working in.
Survivor contestants are constantly assessing where they stand in the game. Those who go far understand the social connections and strategies unfolding among their larger group and respond accordingly. Trying to push a vote too hard in one direction, or debating strategy with an ally without recognizing how they might perceive that communication could lead to a vote out of the game.
While there are elements of Survivor (deception, trickery, etc.) that good advisors would certainly not recommend outside the game, the reality show that captivated millions over its 20+ years on air has its parallels to strategic communications. Next week, fans and communicators alike will have an exciting opportunity watch how these skills are once again put to work.