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: http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/398027/). 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.