Getting serious about the social science of public relations

I often have email conversations with my PR Academy colleague, Kevin Ruck PhD. about public relations and communications. We have a shared interest in psychology (both being qualified at degree level in the discipline) and believe the social sciences have much to offer in our work. The following post sets out our latest debate – please add your thoughts in the comments below or join us in the Facebook group: Public Relations Community of Practice.

Heather: We both have an interest in psychology in relation to public relations and communications, and how research in areas of psychology, sociology, anthropology, and biopsychosocial science for example, offer ways of addressing many of the challenges facing organisations and wider society. My undergraduate degree was in psychology and I’ve often wondered about whether public relations should be more like occupational psychology in applying social science to our practice rather than focusing on communicative and relationship based skills. Do you have a view on this?

Kevin:  My first degree was also in psychology. I studied at the Open University in the late 1990s – they ran some fab summer schools back then! I think there are many aspects of psychology that apply to public relations and communication. Cognitive psychology teaches us a lot about how written and visual communication is processed and stored in the brain. Social psychology provides many insights into how groups of people communicate and behave. Psychobiology informs us about the intersection of cognition and physiology and may explain certain inherent communication styles. Occupational psychology has many crossovers with internal communication and employee engagement. Psychology is a very well-established and well-regarded occupation and this has been based partly on many years of solid academic social science research. Public relations does not yet have the same credibility. Although it does have a growing academic body of knowledge this has largely evolved separately from psychology. This is curious when there are so many obvious connections. Do you have any thoughts on why this has happened?

I could probably construct half a dozen or so propositions. I’m reluctant to look for historical reasons although interestingly there was close co-operation between the advertising industry and applied psychology research departments in US universities in the 1950s. Perhaps public relations closer association at that time with journalism/mass communication schools in the US was a reason why there isn’t such strong academic connection with the social sciences. In the UK of course, PR tended to start out in the post-1992 Universities which probably didn’t have roots in social sciences. But history doesn’t stop us developing theoretical underpinnings as a contemporary discipline. One strand of the growing academic body of knowledge is the socio-cultural perspective, emerging from the movement of critical scholarship that started in the 1980s. These academics have a more European sociological/philosophy lineage rather than the organisation or business studies basis elsewhere. However, both the established and emerging bodies of knowledge seem to equate psychology with persuasion rather than as a means of understanding and explaining human behaviours. How would you suggest integrating new thinking from psychology into practice and academia in public relations?

OK, let’s not get too distracted by why public relations has not collaborated with colleagues in psychology very much. As you say there are many possible explanations. Because I studied pyschology and management alongside working in public relations, I now try to integrate what I’ve learned from other fields into my internal communication teaching. This background may also explain my critique of public relations theory as being a bit insular. Professor Betteke van Ruler made a similar point at Bledcom this year when she said that public relations theory has ignored communication theory. If public relations has ignored psychology and communication theory then I think we have a problem. A key aspect of studying psychology that I think is worth highlighting is the emphasis on applied research. I recall having great fun doing social psychological observational research on Brighton pier during one of the OU summer schools. So, it’s not so much new thinking in psychology that I’d emphasise (although that would be great), it’s more the way that psychologists focus on robust research to develop theories and concepts that I think could be embedded into public relations education and practice. And by research I mean quantitative and qualitative research. An example of this is the way that our understanding of how campaigns to support people to stop smoking has evolved over the last 20 years. Many big hitting ‘fear factor’ campaigns had little impact until it was found that for ‘fear’ to work in this context you also have to provide people with easy to access support to take action. I wonder how much money has been wasted on public relations campaigns that were not properly researched or tested?

There are two points here that I’d like to pick up on. The first is insularity and the second is fun – both of which I’ll connect to your observations about research. I definitely agree that the practicality of psychological studies can be hugely enjoyable and rewarding. I did my dissertation on counting skills in pre-school age children (which was and still is under-studied compared to reading skills). The question wasn’t what the children did – although that is very funny to witness when they know numbers and understand the action of counting but end up reciting random figures with utter seriousness. The point was to understand why, and how this knowledge could then be used. To understand the behaviour that I encountered involved connecting it to psychological principles underlying children’s development, and coming up with further insight. In contrast, one issue I have with evaluation (which is essentially research) within public relations/communications is that it commonly lacks that connection beyond a basic linear presumption of effect (rooted in the AIDA model attributed to St Elmo Lewis from 1898). It also isn’t fun – it seems something the industry feels it has to do to be viewed as mature, strategic, professional – able to charge more money… Whereas actually understanding human behaviour (research), developing theory-led responses (that address root knowledge, attitude and behavioural issues), testing these (research) and evaluating the outcome (research), would be far more engaging, enjoyable and effective. This brings me to insularity – which again may relate to a lack of confidence in learning from other fields – and importantly in getting PR related research into journals, books and everyday knowledge within other fields. Even better, we should be championing and participating in cross-, multi-, inter- and trans-discipliary research within academia and practice (and across that ‘boundary’ too). In that way we stop trying to resolve every issue solely by communications – whilst being able to demonstrate how communications is a vital component in many (if not all) solutions. There is so much amazing research in all sorts of fields that would be of value in public relations and to which public relations could contribute. Do you agree, and if so, how can we start a movement?

I think you’re right about making public relations measurement and evaluation more interesting. The new AMEC Integrated Evaluation Framework is a step forward in making the process simple and easy to use as an online tool. However, public relations and communication measurement is a little too obsessed with channels and events rather than with applying psychological theories and knowledge to communication and intended behavioural outcomes. Creativity seems to be more limited to content and tactics rather than research and problem identification. Perhaps research is associated with data and numbers which is seen as nerdy or boring? As I write this I’ve been reading the Psychologist (August edition) which is the British Psychological Society (BPS) monthly magazine. One article is all about storytelling and the use of heroes and villains. It suggests that ‘literary Darwinism’, which attempts to view fiction through the lens of evolutionary theory, might be a useful way to understand the power of storytelling. The article explores how storytelling has been used to change perceptions for the better – something that could be considered by public relations academics interested in organisational reputation. I’m not suggesting that this is a theory that should be applied in public relations and communication practice. Personally I’m more interested in how organisations engage with stakeholders rather than manage their reputation. The point is that there are theories in other disciplines that can be considered (and critiqued) that have potential applications in public relations and communication research and theory. By the way, on the subject of storytelling, I recently came across this interesting research into digital storytelling (see: This relates to your point about participation in cross-, multi-, inter- and trans-disciplinary research. Having suggested that this is an issue, I think we should probably test this thinking out with academic and practitioner colleagues – so practice what we are preaching about research – and then, if our thinking is validated, see if anyone wants to join us in forming a movement.



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28 Replies to “Getting serious about the social science of public relations

  1. Almost as interesting as the learned dialogue between Heather and Kevin is the comment section!

    First – much of the work PRs do seems, well, instinctual. We tend to go by what “feels” right. We see ourselves through an artist’s lens, engaged in work that isn’t bound by science nor held to scientific proof.

    That leads to poor strategic planning, poor measurement, and frequently poor results.

    Those of us who do aspire (at least) to a deeper planning and measurement prism run up against the tactical imperatives Sean Trainor suggests. All that book-learning is very well and good, but how does it help with the execution?

    My view is that our role — particularly in internal communication is that of the expert in communication. It’s one reason why I prefer the singular rather than plural for communication. “Communications” are things, tactics, outputs. “Communication” is a process necessarily based on science; there’s a reason why some activity is more effective than another in our space.

    Psychology can help to explain why — but of course, if we head down that road, that implies that we might do something that’s not effective that isn’t consistent with the “why” we discover. It’s much like unhooking Google Analytics so you don’t know whether your efforts have had a result or not — if we don’t inculcate theory of communication into our work, no one can hold us accountable.

    I’m not implying that everyone who disagrees is wrong (well, maybe…) — but that the continued demand for results-oriented communication strategies makes it imperative that we understand how people take up and process information. That means we have to understand theory.

    Theory might lead us to revisit our plans – if we know that people need time to process complex information, and that their reading comprehension is better with dark ink on white pages, we might have to dispense with a purely electronic distribution of a complicated document. We might need to change the design of a Web page, or simplify language, or translate something. There are theoretical underpinnings for all of those decisions, and we need to grasp them.

  2. Back in the real world, how do you apply this academic theory (interesting as it is) to writing press releases, publishing stuff on the web, political lobbying, editing newsletters and writing annual reports?

    1. Likely the “tacticians” who perform those departmental tasks will be less concerned than the strategists, who I believe would be wise to consider psychology, Sean. Same in regards to working with IT and analyzing what the big data is demonstrating.

    2. @Sean Trainer your argument above would seem to imply that a doctor doesn’t have to go to medical school to dress wounds, measure blood pressure or prescribe asprin and rest.

      1. Such an interesting exchange between Heather and Kevin, but when it comes to why doesn’t PR use more psychology, a little voice on my shoulder said something along Sean’s lines. Organisations hire PR qualified staff to manage communication with stakeholders. While psychological and behavioural insights can help that be more effective, I really don’t see anyone hiring someone who is a psych grad rather than a PR grad. And because the upper echelons of PR are strategic in the sense of business or public policy, again the psych qualification isn’t going to cut much mustard with the C-Suite.

  3. A good conversation piece, picking up of themes discussed by others over the past few years, for example by Harold Burson in his blog post of 20 April 2011, expressly stating that public relations is applied social science. We have drawn psychological theories and findings into public relations thinking and practice for years, but not enough or explicitly enough. Psychology and its rrelationship to public relations was a topic for discussion at Bled back in the late 90s.

    The Chartered Institute of Public Relations in the UK ran for several years a well-supported interest group that looked at the links between psychology and public relations, MindLink. Jim Grunig contributed to their discussions, and Andy Green cited their work in his on creativity.

    The current interest in behavioural economics — what Daniel Kahneman labelled more accurately applied social psychology at the London 2015 Behavioural Exchange conference — has translated through, in the UK, to a recognition by the Government Communication Service that the future of public sector communication depends on a knowledge of the behavioural sciences. More on the 2015 discussion here.

    The Institute for Public Relations in the US has establshed a Behavioral Insights Research Group to make relevant findings from the behavioural sciences more useful in public relations practice and discussed some of the possibilities from doing this.

    There will be an opportunity to take these discussions on at the IPR’s London Seminar on 10 September.

  4. A great post, and I congratulate the two of you for your emphasis on the behavioral and social sciences in public relations. However, I think you have seriously underestimated the amount of psychological theory that has been incorporated into public relations theory. I know best the work that I have done and that of my colleagues and students at the University of Maryland, so I thought first of that work. Let me give you just a few examples with references.

    I have just finished writing a lengthy encyclopedia entry on publics for the forthcoming Oxford Research Encyclopedia on Risk and Health Communication, so theories of publics come to mind first.

    1. I have developed and used a situational theory of publics since the late 1960s that began with social psychological theories of attitude change, cognitive dissonance, and information seeking and avoidance. Actually it began with John Dewey’s theory of publics, and Dewey was one of the earliest psychologists. You can read a review in this book chapter:
    Grunig, J. E. (1997). A situational theory of publics: Conceptual history, recent challenges and new research. In D. Moss, T. MacManus, & D. Vercic (Eds.), Public relations research: An international perspective (pp. 3-46). London: International Thomson Business Press.

    2. Jeong-Nam Kim has expanded this theory considerably into a situational theory of problem solving. The theory explains communication behaviors but also how people process information and think. It uses social psychologist Arie Kruglanski’s theory of lay informatics heavily. Here is a reference;
    Kim, J.-N., & Krishna, A. (2014). Publics and lay informatics: A review of the situational theory of problem solving. In E. L. Cohen (Ed.), Communication yearbook 38 (pp. 71-106). New York: Routledge.

    3. Hung-Baesecke and I have used theories of cognitive psychology heavily in describing reputation, images, and impressions as different forms of cognitive representations. We relied heavily on John Anderson’s theories of cognitive psychology. Here is a reference:
    Grunig, J. E., & Hung-Baesecke, C-J. F. (2015). The effects of relationships on reputation and reputation on relationships: A cognitive, behavioral study. In E-J. Ki, J-N. Kim, & J. A. Ledingham (Eds.), Public relations as relationship management: A relational approach to the study and practice of public relations, 2nd ed. (pp. 63-113). New York: Routledge.

    4. Hyo-Sook Kim used the extensive literature on organizational justice in organizational psychology to explain the antecedents of good organization-employee relationships in this article:
    Kim-H.-S. (2007) A Multilevel Study of Antecedents and a Mediator of
    Employee—Organization Relationships, Journal of Public Relations Research, 19:2, 167-197.

    5. Flora Hung-Baesecke used social psychologist Judson Mills’ theories of types of interpersonal relationships to explain and research different types of organization-public relationships in this article:
    Chun-ju Flora Hung (2005) Exploring Types of Organization–Public
    Relationships and Their Implications for Relationship Management in Public Relations, Journal
    of Public Relations Research, 17:4, 393-426,

    I could go on and on citing public relations research that has incorporated or used psychological theories. The same can be said for sociology, especially organizational psychology and theories of social movements. Other public relations theories have incorporated theories from political science, anthropology, and communication. In most cases, the theories from other social sciences alone have not solved public relations problems in the form they were developed in other disciplines, but they have served as an important source of concepts and methods from social science that have stimulated and enriched public relations theory . Other public relations theories have used theories from philosophy and the humanities in a similar way as social science theories have been used.

    The unfortunate thing is that other disciplines have not reciprocated and used concepts and theories from public relations–to their detriment, I believe.

    1. Hi Jim,

      Thanks for providing some interesting examples of how social science theories have been incorporated into public relations theories.

      As you say, I’m sure there are also plenty more that could be cited.

      However, when I look at current public relations text books published in the UK and written by respected academics, I don’t see theories from psychology reflected very strongly. I reviewed four text books with a total number of 85 chapters and found:

      2 chapters with an explicit reference to ‘psychology’ (one of these was written by Heather)
      2 index references to ‘psychographics’
      1 index reference to ‘psychological contract’
      1 index reference to ‘psychology, and persuasion’
      1 index reference to ‘social comparison theory’
      1 index reference to ‘social learning theory’
      1 index reference to ‘social psychology’

      I realise that this is a very ‘rough and ready’ piece of analysis and if I drilled down into each chapter I would probably find more evidence of links to psychology. However, I think it illustrates a broader point that psychology could be incorporated much more than it has been.

      As I mentioned in my reply to Jo Fawkes previously in this discussion, I also did a very quick review of the syllabi of PR degrees at five UK universities and the ‘psychology of communication’ is either absent from the programme or offered only as a single module. Again, this is a very quick piece of analysis and I’m sure that aspects of theories from psychology will be embedded in PR theory in modules on the programmes.

      So, if I have underestimated the influence of psychology in the chat with Heather, I still believe that there is room for greater collaboration between the fields of psychology and public relations.

  5. Dear Heather and Kevin, thank you for this absolutely brilliant dialogue.

    As far as I am concerned, THIS IS IT! Psychology and social sciences play an immense role in the strategic remit of Public Relations and Communication sciences. Depending on the practitioner’s level of interest, exposure and basic knowledge foundation, socio-psychological sciences can be and are the Ace card.

    I’ve been using applied psychology principles constantly in my work and having studied and practiced conflict and negotiation, I cannot emphasise enough the importance of social and behavioural sciences in PR and Communications.

    1. Hi Ella,

      Thanks for the comments. Hope we can get a bit of a movement going on this!

      Best wishes.

  6. Great! Kudos to both of you! It is essential we get serious about the Social Sciences of PR. Researching, applying and writing books on such.

    That informed my writing of ‘The Philosophy of PR’ published by G/A in 2005. And my presentation at the EUPRERA Congress, 2008 ‘The Role of Philosophy of PR in Institutionalizing Public Relations and Communication Management’ published also by IPR, US.

    1. Hi Sunday,

      Thanks for your comments, I agree that public relations academics and practitioners could embed relevant psychological theories and concepts more into research, teaching, writing and practice.

      It’s certainly something I intend to do more myself.

      Best wishes.

  7. Great topic. I taught psychology of communication at Central Lancs and Leeds Met from mid 90s.

    2nd year students loved it – they gained insights into themselves as well as practice. Often stimulated questions they researched in final year dissertations. Turned much of the material into chapter for Exploring PR (Tench and Yeomans) now in its fourth ed. So there is some engagement.

    But I was always astonished not only that PR ignored psychology but that psychological studies of health campaigns for example, never referred to PR. The silo works both ways.

    1. Couldn’t agree more Johanna! I have conducted national health campaigns in Australia using public relations (and very creative strategies) – and they were very successful. Of course, they were underpinned by psychology and strong communication theory.

    2. Hi Jo,

      Thanks for providing this background to the degree programmes at UCLan and Leeds Met. Indeed, Liz Yeomans tweeted to say that ‘Social Psychology of Communication’ is still taught as a year 2 core module at Leeds Beckett.

      I’ve done a very quick review of the syllabi of PR degrees at five UK universities and the ‘psychology of communication’ is either absent from the programme or offered only as a single module. Alternatively, some programmes include a ‘Public Opinion & Persuasion’ module. I think this underlines the point that Heather and I were making in this post.

      Interesting point about health campaign research. I’m sure that silo approaches are not restricted to public relations. The question is how do we address this?

      Best wishes.

  8. Heather and Kevin,

    Thank you both for your posts – and for raising a topic I have felt strongly about for a very long time. I also enjoyed reading everyone’s comments as well.

    I am not familiar with the structure of formal courses in communication and public relations at UK universities, however, in Australia, at the University of Canberra in particular where I studied my undergraduate Bachelor of Arts degree in communication and public relations (with Dr Robyn Penman), a large chunk of the three year program was devoted to compulsory subjects in social psychology, social research methods, philosophy, and communication theory. Not only were they fun to study, but they provided the necessary framework and grounding that communications and public relations

    Throughout my public relations and communication consulting career, I have drawn heavily on the information, thinking and research skills gained through studying these subjects. (I later became an academic at UC with responsibility for Communication Theory and Public Relations Strategy.)

    I don’t believe we can truly practice professional public relations without understanding how attitudes are formed, how to measure them, and how to influence both attitude and behaviour.

    1. Hi Anne,

      Thanks for this contribution to the discussion. It’s very interesting to see the emphasis placed on psychology and comunication theory at the University of Canberra. As you say, it’s fun to incorporate this into the syllabus and also very useful when it comes to practice.

      Best wishes.

  9. Thanks for this interesting conversation. At BledCom I indeed commented on the fact that in public relations theory (and practice) communication is too much as sending out messages while communication theory is far more sophisticated than that.

    Psychology is playing a huge role in communication theory, as other social theories as well as language theory in its broadest sense. It brings it all together, that is why I suggested to start with communication theory.

    1. Hi Betteke,

      I loved your presentation at Bledcom this year. I remember tweeting you about it and asking why public relations and communication research and practice has ended up like this.

      As Heather and I reflect in the post, we could probably spend a lot of time speculating about this and whilst that might be useful we’re more interested in starting a bit of a movement to address the situation.

      Best wishes.

  10. Thanks for letting us eavesdrop on a lively and stimulating conversation.

    Is there a need to emphasise the recent developments, a revolution, in neuroscience and psychology to provide the trigger for greater connectivity and integration of psychology into PR thinking and doing?

    Does Nobel prize-winning Daniel Kahneman and his heuristics -or what I call Brand Heuristics – provide the framework for all integrated communications, notably we say ‘Yes’ the more we:

    1. Know
    2. Like
    3. Trust
    4. Is front of mind
    5. Others are talking about it

    Should we be promoting this as a framework for comms and PR activity and so integrate psychology into the thinking and doing of PR?

    1. Hi Andy,

      I don’t know very much about neuroscience so I had a quick look at the latest edition of the Journal of Neuroscience. The following paper ‘A Putative Multiple-Demand System in the Macaque Brain’ is freely available at

      I think I need to spend more time looking for papers that have a stronger potential connection to public relations but I’m with you on the general point that other fields should not be ignored.

      I can see a more obvious link with heuristics, but I’m wary of positioning a specific concept such as this as a general framework for public relations and communication. I look at it as one of many concepts that can be adapted. What do others think about this?

      Best wishes.

  11. Excellent piece, Without any real grounds I have always thought PR shied away from psychology because it brought to the fore issues of persuasion and messing with minds.

  12. Thank you so much for this conversation! I totally agree and can’t understand why the link isn’t already firmly established.

    I’ve been searching for courses in this exact field but have so far been unable to find anything. I don’t suppose you could point me in the right direction?

    1. Hi Niki,

      Thanks for your kind words. Heather and I really enjoyed doing this piece. Hopefully we can get a small movement going that can start to address the issue.

      In terms of a course on psychology for public relations and communication, I have to say I don’t know of one in the UK – which reflects that general point that Heather and I have made. But maybe other contributors to this post can chip in if they know about a course.

      Best wishes.

  13. Thank you Heather and Kevin for sharing this conversation with us.

    I couldn’t agree more with the point you’re making here. I did my undergraduate studies in psychology just like you. I also completed a graduate Diploma in Public Relations and Communications.

    This article falls directly into my field of interests. I hope such a movement will see the light.

    1. Hi Sarah,

      Good to connect with another psychology graduate now working in PR. I really hope we can get enough people interested in this to start a movement!


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