The Psychology & Sociology of Public Relations


psychology: noun, plural psy·chol·o·gies.
-The science of the mind or of mental states and processes

sociology: noun
-The science or study of the origin, development, organization, and functioning of human society

public relations: noun
-The actions of a corporation, store, government, individual, etc., in promoting goodwill between itself and the public, the community, employees, customers, etc.

Viva. Everyone in my family uses Viva paper towels. They are amazing, and without a doubt “tops” when it comes to quality. They are thicker, softer and more cloth-like than any of their competitors. 

I have used their product for over a decade, but have never seen an ad, article, or post about this product. I use it because my mom used it. And, I know she used it because my grandmother introduced her to it, likely because there was a coupon in the Sunday paper.

Viva has never communicated directly with me through advertising or marketing efforts, but through Public Relations I have developed a loyalty to this brand that is unwavering. (Seriously check them out if you haven’t used their paper towels or napkins – simply amazing.) I am a brand loyalist because a trusted referral introduced me to Viva and it continues to deliver on what I have come to depend on it for – quality at a reasonable-ish price point. 

There is an organic relationship that this example demonstrates. My grandmother told my mom, my mom told me, and now I am telling you. This word of mouth is what brands try to replicate all the time. It’s not rocket-science, but it is a science. And, if we focus in on the psychology and sociology of Public Relations, it can be replicated.

The Environment of Public Relations

Understanding buyers and their brand loyalties is a multi-million dollar a year industry. It keeps a lot of bright minds employed and there is no magic bullet. Every brand is fighting and vying for a piece of a consumer’s time and money…just a piece.

If you think about all the noise that exists in a consumer’s life, we as brands are a very, very small piece of the pie. Our opportunity to reach an old or new customer is limited, so why not use our best tool – relationships.

As brand advocates, and champions of public messaging and consumption, PR professionals are responsible for understanding human nature and recognizing that analytics are ever changing. Public Relations is a fascinating niche in the world of communication because it meets at the intersection of creativity and analytics. It’s a beautiful marriage between your left and right brain because you need facts and insight to support and develop your creative, strategic direction. 

Unlike advertising, Public Relations can conduct more of a direct dialogue with a brand’s consumer. And with the rise of social media, the environment to engage with people has shifted, but core fundamentals and principles remain.

PR relays information that is convincing, effective and engaging to consumers. Translated: we have to know who we’re talking to. How can we effectively communicate to someone who isn’t ready to receive our message? 

I was watching my mom clean up with a household product. I had no reason to do a competitor analysis of my own – I trust her choices. That’s where analytics come into play. Beyond demographics we need to be applying psychographics and neuroscience. Beyond age, race, and HHI, what is the buyer’s state-of-mind? First, we have to focus on the individual, then we can expand to the masses. Thus, the psychology AND sociology of Public Relations.

All Brands Have a Loyal Audience, Get to Know Yours (Psychology)

If you can be brutally honest with yourself about who buys your product, not who you want to buy your product, you’re on the right track. I can guarantee you that if Apple started focusing all their marketing dollars on senior citizens, their efforts would be sorely misplaced. Their loyal audience is made up of Millennials or Echo-Boomers (basically young, early adopters). The rest of the audience is bonus. 

To identify who buys your product habitually, do your research. Focus groups, online surveys and interactions on your social media properties are all great indicators and valuable insights into your brand loyalists. The people who participate in these forms of communication want a relationship with your brand. If they are actively posting on your Facebook page, or re-tweeting your posts/ coupon deals – they are into you. The people who like your page and then fall off the face of the earth, they are not that into you. 

It’s important to find things out about the individual and how they are using your product. Are they a single mother? Do they shop more online or in-store? What are their attitudes towards politics, religion, cuisine? All these idiosyncrasies will shape how they digest information and how they can be reached to either further their brand loyalty, or diverge to try something new. Some general things to ask that dive beyond age, race and economic status include:

Marital status

Kids or no kids

Pets or no pets

Average hours worked per week

Average hours spent working out

Where they get their information (TV, Radio, Blogs)

Who they trust for advice (friends, parents, co-workers) 

These key insights, among others, help to frame who you are talking to and how they want to receive information. A single mother of three who works 45 hours a week and doesn’t have a smartphone is going to receive and process information much differently than a married mother of two who stays at home with the kids and blogs daily about motherhood. 

Focus on the keepers, the non-conformists will come around eventually, but it’s not worth your time or dollars to focus on them. They are still trying to figure things out for themselves. 

Every Individual Has a Circle of Influence, Introduce Yourself (Sociology)

So, now that we’ve identified who your core audience is, we can start to cast a wider net. That one loyal individual has a circle of influence that expands well beyond their physical connections. Knowing who you’re talking to lends insight into two things that will help you grow your consumer base:

1. Who they communicate with, and 2. Where they are apt to turn to for communication (media). 

Social Media allows peers to communicate easily and effectively about every subject under the sun from sports to fashion and politics to safety recalls. If you give your loyalists a reason to share your message with their friends, they will. Cost savings, industry research, fun surveys, etc. are all engaging ways to let your loyalists share your message. If you make it consistent with your brand and valuable to your consumer, it is easy to push that message forward. If, for example, Viva sent me a coupon or “what using Viva says about you” statement, I would likely either send it to my friends via email or post on Facebook and Twitter. I am now working for the brand without evening knowing it, but I wouldn’t mind anyway because I like them.

Beyond friends and family, consumers get their information from a third-party resource, so get to know that audience as well. TV, Print, Radio and the Internet are all places where information exists for consumption. Where your loyalists go for news, gossip, local happenings, etc. is where you should focus your attention. Use yourself as a litmus test. Where do you go for news? Whether it’s a magazine you get in the mail, or a news aggregate that brings stories you are interested in to a centralized app on your smartphone – you have your favorites. Everyone does. Once you know where your consumers are, you can tailor your PR efforts to reach the loyalists, and others like them.

The devil is in the details, and when we’re dealing with the fickle creature we call “the consumer” – it’s vital to your brand that you do your research. By narrowing in on the psychology of one, your PR efforts can reach the masses.