I’m a PR person, let me read your mind

image If PR practitioners had a super power, should it be mind-reading?  Claire Wheatcroft has asked me to publicise the CIPR Marcomms Group’s forthcoming evening event: Unlocking the secrets of the brain: the nascent world of neuro PR (taking place in London on 23 September – email marianne@forrester-solutions.com for more information).

The event aims to enable PR practitioners to “harness their own intuitive powers and put these into practice to win business and communicate more effectively” by using applied psychology and neuroscience – which are said to be “new tools”.

It sounds an interesting event.  As someone with a degree in psychology, I know there’s been much studied and written over the 150 years or so that has given us a better understanding of human behaviour.

However, I wonder about the ethical implications of seeing psychology and now, neuroscience, as something to be used to our own ends.  Of course, everyone uses persuasive and other techniques every day – even babies and dogs do it!

But should I be able to use an understanding of your brain – probably without your knowledge – to influence you?  Does it depend on my motives or if it’s in your own best interests?

Is using psychology and neuroscience different to using intuition and good interpersonal skills to build rapport and influence through open dialogue?

Toni Muzi Falconi has just written in a comment on a post at PR Conversations:

I will dare to say that psychology is more important (to PR practitioners) than good writing…

Arguably, good writing needs an understanding of psychology – and much of what the public and PR professionals understand to be persuasive communications derives from psychological studies in the 1950s, particularly Carl Hovland‘s Yale Communication Model.

Should PR practitioners equally be following the research from neuroscientists to understand people’s thoughts and actions?  Will it bring some holy grail of influencing human behaviour?  And if it does – should it be allowed to?


  1. Greg Smith says:

    I’ve long thought a unit or two in social psychology should be part of PR degrees. I’ve got a Communications PhD, but I’m going to do an introductory psychology unit next year.

  2. Heather, you are certainly not alone in underscoring the huge influence of psychology and now also of neuroscience in our body of knowledge and professional practice.
    Yet, before we run the risk of inadvertently sparking off a witch hunt amongts the more delicate of the pr..itterati, we should certainly say that some of the wording used by the cipr marcomms group could have been more cautious.
    To define a better awareness and comprehension of individual and social behaviour as a ‘new tool’ to win business is a gaffe.

    Now the ethical dilemma.
    You ask:but should I be able to use an understanding of your brain – probably without your knowledge – to influence you? Does it depend on my motives or if it’s in your own best interests?

    Honestly I do not think that this question is any more or less relevant today than it was in Bernay’s times.
    Of course we have always tried to understand other peoples’ minds in order to more effectively argue our client and employer narratives!
    This is an essential part of our profession!
    Some of us do this without informing those others and therefore surely trespass professionally responsible behaviours.
    Others instead do inform them (for example: focus groups, participant observation, interviews etc..).
    Also, the question of whether we do this in our or their best interest is another classical ethical dilemma.
    And the only possible answer is that we operate in the best interest of both as well as that of other parties who might receive collateral consequences.
    You are raising an important issue and I am sure that the organizers of the upcoming cipr session will make it very clear.

    However allow me to raise here what instead is, in my view, a (relatively) new issue which seems to be emerging and which definitely has serious practical implications for our activity.
    I refer to what many researchers and practitioners are beginning to realize: opinions are much less correlated to behaviours than they used to be only ten, fifteen years ago.
    If this is even only partially true, it means that we (as well as the market, political and social research industry) need to focus our attention much more on understanding behaviours than opinions.
    And this certainly raises the necessity that we revise our listening processes through a much better knowledge of both psychology and neuroscience.
    I might be completely off the bat, but the latter is still in its infancy and mostly if not solely focussed on individuals, whereas the former has matured and developed also what your first commenter defined as social psychology.
    It is our best interest to very closely follow the developments of both and particularly to pay attention to how neuroscience is beginning also to study the behaviours of specific publics.

  3. Paul Seaman says:

    Socio-biological PR should remain the perverted property of Fascists and Stalinists from where it sprung, or at least where it found a gullible mass audience (phrenology dates from the 19th century, for instance). One can smell the nonsense underlying such discussion today in sentences which talk of people, “harness [ing] their own intuitive powers and put [ing] these into practice to win business and communicate more effectively by using applied psychology and neuroscience.” As they say where I come from, leave it out!

    By the way, Alfred Marshall writing in the 19th century first set a value on psychological ‘externalities’, and rightly so (that’s got a lot to do with reputations and winning a licence to operate). Maslow was right to persuade the marketing world to focus on human-centred concerns rather than animal ones (socio-biological PR “backed” by neuroscience has it vice a versa). Moreover Freud’s and Bernays’ theories are social rather than biologically focused (that sounds counter-intuitive, I know).

  4. Greg – psychology is covered in the Undergraduate PR degree course largely in respect of looking at persuasion. I hope you will share what you learn from your course.

    Toni – interesting that you draw out listening. This morning I heard a piece on the radio talking about how relying on psychology, social factors and similar “drivers” to explain someone’s behaviour ignored personal responsibility and choice in the responses we make. This is similar to the idea that there is a cause-effect relationship between opinion and behaviour. So listening helps remind us that people are active controllers of their behaviour and not simply like Pavlov’s dogs or unable to hold an opinion separate to our behavioural response (although cognitive dissonance may impact there).

    This relates also to Paul’s observations – and is a reminder that a lot of studies in psychology are based on animal experiments, with people being a little bit more complicated than rats running around a maze. I sometimes wish I could be as open-minded as my dogs who also live in the moment rather than carrying all the baggage we humans bring with us.

    On Bernays – I agree that the theories he applied were largely social – but also of their time. We all know a bit more about the methods of advertising today, for example, making it harder for us to be impressed/influenced by the techniques that were acceptable then. But, concerns about such marketing influence still exist in restrictions on marketing to children and others who are perhaps ill-equipped to tell the difference between hype and fact.

  5. Heather, I am a big believer in science and technology and think it is generally nonsense to question the ethics of the discipline. Human choices determine whether something is ethical. So I am with Toni, that if psychology and neuroscience help us to better understand people, then that is wonderful. But there is a difference between using this insight to engage with people and using it to manipulate them. It is sometimes a fine line, and one we all need to walk every day.

    Futerra did research (http://www.futerra.co.uk/downloads/Words-That-Sell.pdf) into the types of language that motivate people to change their behaviour with regard to sustainability. The test group reacted better to “common sense” advice, words that were familiar and not overly technical, calls to be savvy and language that personified solidarity and empathy. They reacted badly to implied guilt. Would it be unethical to apply these results in your next campaign to promote recycling? Would it be manipulative? Or would it just be good practice?

    I think psychology really is rather like culture: you can make sweeping generalisations about groups, but at the end of the day, you are dealing with a bunch of unique individuals, none of whom quite conforms to any median.

    Which makes me wonder if real life isn’t a lot more like quantum physics than we thought: the more (and closer) you observe a phenomenon, the more you modify the outcome. (View a really good explanation of how observation changes the outcomes of physics phenomena at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DfPeprQ7oGc)

  6. Jill Blake says:

    A recent thread on another discussion group contained the input from a marketeer who blew PR theory out the water and appeared to know the innermost workings of everybody’s psyche.

    He certainly thought he had the holy grail in deciphering human behaviour and change.

    He was a stage hypnotist in his previous job it turned out!

  7. letterhead says:

    “in your own best interest”… ?

    Who’s to say what’s in my best interest except me? And if I want to make a mistake… or need to make a mistake in order to learn an important lesson in life… who’s to say that my right to do that should be subordinate to somebody else’s (mostly commercial) agenda?

    Subverting another person’s autonomy is wrong. Period.

Comments are closed.