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Public relations: an applied psychology

SFHA Communications Conference speaker blog.

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By Dr Jon White CIPR, Honorary Professor at Cardiff University and visiting Professor at the University of Reading.  

Moving into the 2020s, public relations is responding to developments in social media and artificial intelligence with an acknowledged return to its roots in the social sciences.

In one of the last significant attempts to define the practice, the Public Relations Society of America tried to redefine public relations for the current era in 2011. They were much criticised for a definition that focussed on public relations as a strategic communication practice, not least by the late Harold Burson.

He and others stressed that public relations is primarily about behaviour, about influencing behaviour in relationships, that the practice is essentially an application of the social sciences – in particular psychology, which is the scientific study of the way people think, feel and behave.

More recently, the UK Government’s Communication Service produced a paper (The Future of Public Service Communication, 2015) suggesting the future of public service communication will depend on knowledge of behavioural science principles.

The value of applying these has been demonstrated in government, in the UK and elsewhere, through the work of behavioural insight teams – nudge units, the first set up successfully in the UK Cabinet Office in the coalition government which operated from 2010.

·The practical benefits of taking public relations roots in psychology seriously, and of regarding public relations as an applied psychology are immediate and significant:

·Psychology provides a theoretical base for practice. There is, as one famous psychologist stated, nothing so practical as a good theory. Theory enables explanation, prediction and control.  In public relations consultancy and in-house work, predictions are made regarding behaviour on a daily basis – having background in psychological thinking and methods puts these on a firmer footing.

·Psychological theory, based on evidence, builds quality, strength and credibility into advice given.

·Research methods common in psychology help in dealing with questions in practice, for example, in dealing with questions of measurement.

·Communication is central to public relations practice, as it is used to influence and to try to change behaviour. Communication and its effects – on human development, social life, the workings of groups and organisations have been thoroughly studied in psychology. Findings from the psychological study of communication are often alluded to in practice, but often without knowledge of the underlying research which has produced them (some examples: is it useful to repeat messages in the hope that they will cut through? If so, how many times should messages be repeated? Is it a good idea to publicise opponents’ arguments? What does the expression, ‘perception is reality’ mean in practice, and where does this idea come from?).

Recent work by psychologists, working under the heading of ‘behavioural economics,’ has emphasised the need to study how people make decisions affecting their lives, and how they behave in light of the decisions they have made. 

Current interest is in the link between thinking and behaviour – how much thinking is habitual, affected by biases? How much do we really need to know about the way people think, when now so much information can be gathered about behaviour that emerging patterns in behaviour can be used to predict future behaviour?

Campaign planners, especially in political campaigns, are putting together information regarding behaviour to ensure campaign outcomes, as shown in the Brexiteers’ campaign in 2016, and the UK General Election last year.

The tools and thinking available from applied psychology are there to be understood and used. A challenge for public relations will be to make full use of them in the coming years.

Dr Jon White will be discussing some of these issues at a session on The Psychology of Communication at the SFHA Communications Conference in Glasgow on 24 March.

Day delegate rates start at £229 for SFHA members and £319 for non-members.  

For more information, or to book your place, please visit the conference’s event page on the SFHA website.

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