The Psychology of Persuasion


“PR is a mix of journalism, psychology, and lawyering – it’s an ever-changing and always interesting landscape.”

Well put, Ronn Torossian. This is exactly why I want to get into public relations.

We are thinkers, strategists, influencers. As PR pro’s, reaching audiences is what we do and understanding how they think is our strategy.

A key influencer that led me to pursuing PR was one of the psychology courses I took earlier in my education.  I couldn’t get enough after that. Apart from causing me to take entirely too many social science credits, my curiosity of the mind made me realize the fundamental role that psychology plays in communications/PR.

According to psychologist Gordon Allport, social psychology is the study of how the thoughts, feelings and behaviors of individuals are influenced by the actual, imagined or implied presence of other human beings.

Its purpose is to understand the intertwining factors behind social and individual behavior. Why people do what they do.

Public relations aims to influence public opinion by disseminating messages on behalf of your client. But how can you do this effectively without understanding how people think and the reasoning behind their behavior? Although it seems as though the field of PR is trying to shake the reputation that it is merely a form of persuasion, that is a big part of what we do.

Even if you haven’t been exposed to social psychology, you have used various principles without realizing it. For example, if you want your roommate to start cleaning up after himself/herself, what message will most likely motivate them to change their behavior? Maybe you confront them in a blunt and assertive manner, perhaps you sit them down and have a more serious talk about the issue, or refer to the passive aggressive. You take a mental note of their past attitudes or behaviors, and choose the best route of communicating. Whether you get through to them is directly related to your ability to calculate these psychological tendencies.

But I digress. What does cleaning apartments have to do with PR? This example is similar to public relations, except usually you are taking into account a much larger audience.

Say your client is the American Cancer Society and your objective is to craft a message that will persuade more women to get mammograms. How do you elicit this behavioral response? The way you frame the message makes all the difference. Of the following, which method would be more successful: 

  • Create a campaign focused on positive consequences of getting regular mammograms.
  • Create a campaign focused on the negative consequences of not getting regular mammograms.

According to studies, people will respond better to the latter. You see this all time time in PR campaigns for, say, drinking and driving or anti-smoking. The language and phrasing you use makes all the difference in influencing people’s behaviors and attitudes towards an issue.

But okay, framing is kind of the “go-to” psychological principle for PR. Many of you have probably learned about it at some point. While there are numerous applicable principles, here are a few off the top my head to look into: confirmation bias, pluralistic ignorance, availability heuristic, and the elaboration likelihood model.

I realize the stereotype for journalism majors; we’re creative but we don’t tend to mix well with science or math.  But social psych is a science worth the effort. I believe it’s in every PR pro’s best interest to have at least a basic understanding of these principles.