What things mean in public relations

image The British Museum and BBC Radio 4 have recently concluded a fascinating project: the History of the World in 100 objects (see video embedded below). 

The objects each have a communicative meaning – evoking a particular narrative, a time, society, trend or usage.  They tell us what people have valued and how objects reflect a sense of self, whether individual or related to a particular group or community.

This is something that is relevant in public relations where looking at the things that have meaning to those with whom we communicate can provide insight.  Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton consider the relationship we have with our homes and cherished possessions in order to:

examine the role of objects in people’s definition of who they are, or who they have been, or who they wish to become.

Their observation that: “The emotion that things evoke is also an interpretation or inference, a sign or symbol of one’s attitude” is useful in thinking about  how and why people make connections with organisations/brands/products.

The way in which an object takes on special meaning is evidenced beautifully in an episode of Frazier about his father’s chair as an object that carries precious personal memories which its ugly exterior could never convey. 

On a more superficial level, we all reflect something about our personalities by the objects we choose to be associated with.  In our media literate society, everything we own, use or wear is interpreted as evidence of our psychology – with those in PR and marketing looking to create such brand associations.

The undergraduate PR students I am working with at Bournemouth University for their Unit on Consumer & Audience psychology recently used the questionnaire designed by Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton in order to understand particular microtrend audiences.  They primarily found that the objects people valued were those that evoked memories or told the story of someone’s life when taken as a whole. 

There is an interesting contrast between the surface idea of brand associations and the deeper emotional investment that we make with things that we really care about.  This shift in focus becomes less about the object itself and more about what it means to an individual.

When we give an object meaning, at the personal level it provides pleasure or is cherished for the enjoyment it gives us.  But more than that, it can evoke kinship; a continuity across generations, recalling emotional connections and shared experiences.

In public relations, we may need to make deeper connections with publics than may be typical when simply marketing a product or service.  Nevertheless, even if all we are trying to do is to “sell” something, this connection to things can be imaginatively used.

I used two examples of adverts with my students.  The first is the classic 1987 VW Golf advert “Changes” where the glamorous Paula Hamilton discards her luxury possessions (jewellery, fur coat) but cannot throw away the keys to her car (which sadly looks dated with modern eyes – my Undergrads actually laughed when they saw the car).

The second is a more recent John Lewis advert telling a woman’s life story with clear emotional connection linked to a series of household products available from the store. 

There are many ways in which we can use such connections as public relations practitioners, but we should focus primarily on understanding the meaning that people place in things that they value rather than in looking to make peripheral brand connections.  That will enable us to develop more kinship and understanding – which is often what is required in managing complex public relations issues.

Just as we can look back through history and determine that it wasn’t just glitter and gold that tells the many stories of our ancestors, so we can understand the stories that engage our publics by the “things” they care about.

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

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