PR and Pyschology
There are a lot of ways to explain public relations, and here is one: PR influences human behavior. That being said, psychology and public relations are related. How? Great PR can change public perceptions, influence decision-making, create or restore trust, and more. Agencies, startups and corporations that understand this are more likely to launch and execute a successful PR campaign than those that don’t.
If you’re a PR practitioner, you should understand the correlation between psychology and public relations. Here, the dream team at Trust Relations outlines the ins and outs of PR, human behavior — and everything in between.
Psychology’s Role in Public Relations
Edward Bernays — an early 20th century pioneer of propaganda and what we now know as public relations — referred to the field as “applied social science.” Bernays is commonly looked at in the industry as one a pioneer of both public relations and scientific persuasions. He taught the first public relations college course ever at New York University in 1922, and is remembered as being far ahead of his time. Bernays maintained that every PR professional should wear an additional hat as a social scientist.
Interestingly, Bernays was Sigmund Freud’s nephew. Many of his thoughts and observations on the power and influence of public relations drew from his uncle’s theories on the different illogical motives that shape human behavior.
Freud believed the unconscious part of the brain governs human behavior, including the thought processes of crowds — together and individually. Freud believed people act differently in a crowd. Bernays, then, is said to have used those theories to manipulate crowds for business and political reasons. For example, Bernays used trusted news outlets — not advertising resources — to illustrate positive images of sought-after women smoking cigarettes in public, which was frowned upon at the time. Bernays also hired women to smoke their “Torches of Freedom” during a 1929 Easter parade. Ultimately, cigarettes became symbols of feminism and equality with men. His use of third-party endorsements and authority — one of the largest reasons companies engage in PR and media relations — influenced a movement.
Clients, Bernays reasoned, needed the right information and advice on how to properly communicate in certain social climates. This included changing public attitudes, perceptions and actions to earn the loyalty of audiences that were crucial to the success and staying power of their company, organization and brand. He was right.
Decades later, PR looks a lot different, especially in the fast-paced digital world. Now more than ever, public relations requires strong verbal and written communication skills, the ability to advise and manage clients of all shapes and sizes, and — perhaps most importantly— strategic thinking.
Developing a killer strategy is based in large part on understanding and anticipating human behavior. This means you and your PR team can observe as well as predict how audiences and stakeholders think, whether that is their opinions on political, social and economic trends; their buying habits; or their opinions about a person, company, industry or brand. Doing so helps the best PR agencies develop and implement communications plans that attract media, build brand reputations,ensure effective media coverage, as well as press releases and key messages, forge relationships with targeted media outlets, manage social media and website content and oversee responses to crisis situations.
Much like those who study and practice psychology and behavioral science, PR professionals work with virtually every business sector, including technology, beauty, finance, fashion and more. A grasp on psychology will help you and your team develop stronger, more results-driven critical thinking skills, possess creative, persuasive and effective writing abilities, and strengthen your ability to communicate key messaging that helps secure media coverage. All of this will help you connect your brand directly to your audience and stakeholders.
What’s more, a firm grasp of human behavior (and the psychology of the human brain) can help PR practitioners make the right decisions and best choices for their clients, and for themselves. This can also help them decide what kind of clients and personalities they want to represent and those who are a less-than ideal fit.
Understanding Your Audience’s Emotions
Emotions drive consumer behavior. They create drama and boost media interest. For ages, marketers and advertisers have known how to use emotion to elicit a response. Emotion also plays a significant role in public relations. The ability to evoke audience emotion helps brands to connect and build relationships with their target stakeholders. Emotion, and the art of cutting through the noise and into a consumer’s feelings, increases a brand’s authority, credibility and authenticity.
If a PR campaign — whether that includes a press release, an influencer partnership, a media pitch, a podcast episode, a social media post, a guest article or all of the above — makes audience members feel something, they are more likely to take action. Media will cover the brand more. Audiences will purchase more products and services. And, a website might see more visitors and conversions, among other things. Understanding audience emotions also lets customers know that the brand understands their needs and pain points — and is there to help make their lives better.
It’s not easy to connect an emotion to a product or service — but many brands do it beautifully. Automakers are especially effective at evoking emotion into their PR, marketing and advertising campaigns.
Understanding Your Audience’s Beliefs
It’s important for all PR practitioners to keep tabs on their audiences’ changing beliefs. Why? Being out of touch is a surefire way to miss the mark and keep a brand stagnant, stale and dismissed by press, consumers and key stakeholders. This includes remaining culturally sensitive and forward-thinking instead of staying stuck in the past and clinging to old, irrelevant or insensitive messaging or ideas.
Remember, a mistake or mishap can go viral in an instant. Volatile consumer-facing industries like healthcare, the airlines, food and automotive encourage audience beliefs that are often on different sides of the social and political spectrum. Speaking out on important cultural and political issues shows leadership and sensitivity, but can also alienate a brand’s audience if the stance doesn’t accurately reflect them or the brand. A firm grasp on audience beliefs can help brands properly address a crisis with as little disruption or lasting-impact as possible.
How to Use Psychology in Public Relations to Influence Audiences
Using psychology in PR should come second nature to you, whether you work for an agency or in-house for a company of any size. This is how you create interest and encourage your target audience to take action. Even a short, yet thought-provoking, relatable social media post can be a game changer for struggling brands, whose consumers identify with them in ways they never realized before. All it took was knowing how to go beyond reaching your audience, to understanding how they think and feel.
Help Your Audience See
Understanding what drives your audience to take action — what compels them to act a certain way — means digging into their lives, as well as their minds. What publications do they read? What websites do they bookmark? What social media influencers do they follow? What are their political and social beliefs?
You will help your audience see the benefit of your brand by convening messaging that shows you are relating to them. By being on their side, offering solutions to their problems or conveying a product or service they will view as something they want and need.
A brand that conveys its emotions is a great way to connect with audiences and stakeholders who share similar values and beliefs. People are influenced by others’ emotions. Emotion can be a powerful tool in any PR campaign and media pitch. After all, conveying emotion is a huge aspect of storytelling. As long as the messaging is authentic, audiences will likely offer an emotional response by interacting with the brand.
Show Your True Intentions
Again, authenticity is key here. Don’t try to be someone or something you’re not. People like brands that appear transparent, authentic and honest. Media coverage that touches on a brand’s true intentions builds authenticity and third-party brand credibility. It increases consumer trust.
In other words: tell the truth.
Ethos is Everything
Aristotle argued that audience credibility must precede any attempt at persuasion. Think about credibility as you plan your PR campaigns. Ethos is credibility and character. If you don’t have ethos behind your public relations strategies, your audience may not accept what you say as the truth. Journalists are especially adept at picking up on poor ethos.
Make it Memorable
How do you make your brand memorable through PR? There are several ways to go about it once you understand how your audience behaves as well as what they feel. Tell your story in a way you never have before. Or plan your pitches, campaigns and thought leadership pieces around things people are already talking about: trends, ideas, news, the hottest celebrities and the latest product launches.
The human brain is a complex machine. Combine that with the science of persuasion, and you certainly have a complicated task ahead of you. Even so, it’s important that you, as a PR practitioner or a brand, consider the mind and how it affects human behavior much in the same way the field of psychology does. If so, you’ll find using psychology to develop PR tactics and strategies will help create the buzz you need to fire up and excite media, potential investors, consumers and industry leaders, among others. This is a win for both you and your key stakeholders.
Trust Relations Team