Paging Dr. Phil: Psychology and PR


I was recently telling a colleague how I really enjoyed pitching a particular account, and he gave me an odd look—the company didn’t have a rock star CEO, a life-changing product, or name brand recognition. Yet I found myself excited about the themes we were pitching because at the core, the mission had to do with the psychology around how people learn and the tools/technologies to help those people learn more effectively.

Now this may not seem exciting to you but if you work in public relations, whether you like it or not, you cannot escape the importance that psychology plays in our everyday lives. The study of human behavior and thought processes are directly related, whether you’re trying to manage a company’s image after a crisis, planning a campaign to change stakeholders’ perspectives, or attempting to nudge consumers toward a new product.

Think about the basic concepts when strategizing for a public relations campaign—first you’ll need to understand the background of your key publics and why they hold their particular opinions, beliefs, and attitudes. This psychological knowledge is key when planning and deciding what strategies and tactics to put into motion in order for your PR campaign’s messages to resonate positively.

When planning a social media campaign, it’s not just about understanding how to use the capabilities, but rather about deciding how to use social networks to enhance your client’s brand and to increase their interaction with their followers and audience(s). Certain messages or tactics will receive better response on Twitter vs. YouTube, for example, because of the ways they like to interact with different mediums. And this understanding of people’s behavior and how it’s affected through use of online environments, centers around psychology.

Psychology is also at the heart of media relations. Understanding how a journalist works/thinks, who they are, what they’re interested in, and what their needs are goes a long way toward creating the “perfect pitch.” It’s also imperative to understand your target audience, what they read and watch, how they consume news, and the reasoning behind those decisions. In other words, an understanding of human behavior and people’s thought patterns will help you craft accurate stories for your clients; ones that will actually stick.

Of course just having a sharp mind in psychological matters can never replace the core skills of a successful PR professional, like the ability to write well, to multitask and pivot projects successfully, and to be creative. But, I’d argue that a solid knowledge of psychology will make you better at understanding your clients’ key audiences, and is also the best way to make a message resonate positively with them. So while you’re staying on-top of your daily news consumption, why not try throwing some reading of Polyvagal Theory into the mix?

What do you think – is a background in psychology useful for a PR pro? What other outside studies can make you a better public relations professional? Be sure to leave your comments below!