Connecting the Dots Between Psychology and Public Relations


By Lauren Spinelli

The Public Relations Society of America defines public relations as “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”

But how exactly are these relationships built? What public relations tool is used to make the connection? Is it the strength of the message? The way it’s delivered? Is it plain luck?

Actually, it’s the power of psychology and human interaction. Relationships based on communication are not built on a message alone, but rather the theory behind how people think and why they remember what they do.

In order to understand the ways public relations connects successfully with any particular group, professionals assess four questions: who their audience is, how that audience forms their attitude, how attentive they are to the messaging, and, finally their ability to remember and hold onto that message. Mastering these four questions allows public relations professionals to get as close as possible to achieving their ultimate goal — to influence behavior.

In other words, psychology teaches communications professionals to learn their subjects, tailor their message and watch the subconscious behavior unfold.

The bond between PR and psychology dates back to the early 1920s, when Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, was the first to make a link between psychology and influencing human behavior through communications.

Most PR theories are based on theories of psychology like the Diffusion of Innovation. This theory explains the process by which a new idea is communicated through certain channels over time among the members of a social system. Social psychology focuses on concepts like behavioral change, group behavior, and attitude formation — all part of what PR professionals are trying to influence through their campaigns. Having a background in psychology acts as a strong compliment to traditional public relations training.

During the process of a PR campaign you have to determine specific target audiences and approach them differently based on the topic. People respond to detail and design differently from the color of your presentation slides to your overall messaging and the medium being used. Psychology can explain why all demographics react to messages differently, based on the science of sensation and perception.

PR professionals always aim to relay information that is persuasive, effective, and leads to an action. The first step to knowing how to influence a person is knowing how people form attitudes. In psychology, an attitude refers to a set of emotions, beliefs, and behaviors toward a particular object, person, or thing that can affect behavior.

Attitude formation has three basic components: emotional, or how your feel about it; cognitive, or what you think about it; and behavioral, or what you are doing about it.

So how can attitude be changed? When PR professionals are planning campaigns, they have to take into account social perception: positive and negative bias, cultural and context influences, and stereotypes. The best way to change a person’s attitude is to use classical conditioning and the social learning theory. Classical conditioning refers to forming an association between two actions resulting in a learned response to those actions. An example would be overcoming fear or anxiety during presentations. Pairing an anxiety-provoking situation, such as presenting in front of a group, with pleasant surroundings helps people learn new associations so instead of feeling anxious in this situation, the person will learn to stay relaxed and change their behavior. The social learning theory proposes that people learn from one another, via observation, imitation and modeling. This is very similar to the Diffusion of Innovation theory.

Once you’ve determined your target audience and understand their attitudes, you need to know how to keep their attention. Attention is a concept studied in cognitive psychology that refers to how we actively process specific information in our environment. Researchers have found that key variables that impact our ability to stay on task include how interested we are in the topic and how many distractors we experience. The four most prominent ways to keep someone’s attention are: to simulate curiosity and provoke questions, introduce a surprise or change by switching things up with a picture or joke, stress the relevance of the topic to connect listeners and tell stories.

Now that you have the public’s attention, how do you get them to retain the information shared? There are three major processes involved in memory: encoding, storage, and retrieval. Memory is a tricky topic, but it is proven that storytelling is more effective in memory formation than memorization by repeating facts. This is why PR professionals like to use storytelling elements in a press release — to help the reader remember.

A good PR plan is naturally guided by theories of psychology. When studied, analyzed and used correctly, the four questions that help link PR with psychology can propel a PR plan into an engrained societal belief. Bernays used lessons learned from his uncle Freud when he took on the Beech-Nut Packing Company account in the 1920s to promote the sales of bacon. Bernays developed a PR plan that linked eating bacon and eggs for breakfast to enhanced health and energy in the morning though expert endorsements from physicians. Bernays turned bacon and eggs into America’s staple breakfast in a matter of years by using classical conditioning to change the attitude of millions and succeed in connecting psychology and PR.

Bernays, the father of PR, was the first practitioner to marry the two disciplines of PR and psychology with the theories learned from Freud, the father of psychology. Now that you see the strong relationship between the two that dates back almost 100 years, you might be interested in a psychology class to boost your PR and communication skills.

Lauren Spinelli, Spector  Lauren Spinelli is a PR intern at Spector & Associates, a New York City-based public relations and marketing firm. Graduating from San Diego State University this spring with a PR degree and a Psychology minor, Lauren is ready to take the PR world by storm. If Lauren isn’t writing, her other passions include watching movies and playing lacrosse.

3 thoughts on “Connecting the Dots Between Psychology and Public Relations

  1. Thank you for this! I’m an interdisciplinary studies major (PR & Psyc) and I strongly believe that psychology needs to be part of every student in communication curriculum. They go hand in hand and would make anybody a stronger PR pro.

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