A Manifesto for the Future Development of Public Relations Practice

By Jon White and Shayoni Lynn, from the Chartered Institute of Public Relations’ Behavioural Insights Interest Group and Panel.

Looking past the COVID 19 restrictions, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations Behavioural Insights Interest Group and Panel can now begin to move forward to address the interests of members of the Group and provide support to CIPR members as questions arise relating to the use of behavioural insights in practice.

We start from beliefs that public relations needs to be taken more seriously and to take itself more seriously.

Public relations is essentially applied psychology, making predictions relating to behaviour and trying to realise them, to create opportunities, avoid mistakes and improve performance (in decision-making, implementation, and the achievement of objectives and overall impact).

It is a psychology of inter and intra-group relations, with interests in topics such as perception, communication, group dynamics, factors underlying collaboration, support, opposition and conflict, and behavioural change in group settings.

What is suggested here is not new, but it defines the practice.

Edward Bernays, one of the founders of modern public relations in the United States talked in the 1920s of the need for practice to be informed by the psychological insights developed by his uncle, Sigmund Freud.  In one of the more recent attempts to come up with a clear definition of public relations, the late Harold Burson commented on the Public Relations Society of America’s efforts stressing, with Bernays, that public relations is “an applied social science that influences behaviour and policy” (Harold Burson, blog, 5 March 2012 (copy available)).

Psychological knowledge cannot be acquired easily through short training programmes or through reading ‘pop’ psychology, valuable though insights from these sources may be.  It is derived from the scientific study of behaviour and of the ways people think, feel, and behave.

It requires insight, confident assessment of the results of research, approaches to data which are theory and hypothesis driven, and healthy scepticism of any findings and conclusions.

Behaviourally informed communications and public relations programmes acknowledge that individuals may not be making rational decisions all the time; that they take a multitude of mental shortcuts to make decisions. This means that appealing to our audiences in a rational way many not necessarily get them to pay attention to our messages or act.

It is important, therefore, to take a scientific approach to human behaviour and decision making. Hypotheses should always be tested to inform strategy and implementation, and practitioners should work in an agile manner to be responsive to audiences’ behaviours in order to maximise impact.

Accepting the view of public relations set out in this manifesto holds out the possibilities of step changes in professional approaches to public relations and the contribution it can make to:

  • decision-making
  • leadership and management
  • organisational effectiveness, and
  • social development.

The Behavioural Insights Interest Group and Panel will be working to help bring about these changes.

More information from drjonwhite@gmail.com or Shayoni Lynn at shayoni@lynnpr.co.uk. Comments on the manifesto will contribute to a meeting of the group in mid-October. The outcomes of this meeting will set the group’s work programme and will be publicised.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

  1. Well done Jon and Shayoni. Can I raise some points made in the spirit of a constructive friend.

    1. Just question your describing public relations as ‘essentially applied psychology’. I believe there is a strong case to be made for a much broader field of knowledge base, particularly social psychology, sociology and social anthropology.

    2. Rather than dismiss ’pop’ psychology should it not be welcomed as being an effective way for bring people to the subject of psychology. After being introduced to the subject, practitioners through the ‘pop’ psychology they can then develop their thinking and practice with more academically-rigorously applied methodologies and teachings.

    3. Just concerned about the tone here. Should be the Group be an inclusive body, a cheerleader and champion for greater engagement with behaviour sciences and be both an entry point and a pathway to developing practice?

    It seems there may be a danger of being construed as elitist and non-inclusive. A twin-track approach of exploring how we can deepen our knowledge and practice and then also a ‘how do we make it easy to engage and grow’ approach’ is needed.

    4. Think we need to include references to Purpose, or what I prefer ‘Purposefulness’ as a key reference point in future exploration in this area.

    Well done again on what you are both doing.

Leave a Reply