Although few realised it at the time, a key milestone – possibly the key milestone – in the history of public relations took place some twenty five years ago.
It was the invention of functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI for short.
Psychologists had long run experiments, of course but, for the first time, neuroscientists could now investigate how our brains really worked – on the inside.
Subsequent research is hugely significant for PR practitioners.
We now have a much better understanding – and evidence – of how we really make decisions, form judgements, evaluate situations, perceive others, and express ourselves.
The human brain is a marvel of evolution.
Yet it developed to get most things right most of the time; perfection is unattainable and – arguably – undesirable.
Furthermore, society changes far more quickly than our biology. So there’s a lag: we’re always better equipped to deal with yesterday’s problems.
The key point? We’re not the rational agents we’d like to think we are.
This may sound like common sense, but it couldn’t be further from the social science that I was taught at university nor (dare I say it) practised at the start of my career.
And it has several implications for PR. Consider three.
First, a rational argument needs non-rational support to succeed – perhaps an emotional appeal, linguistic frame, appropriate timing, or trusted communicator.
Moreover, there is strong evidence that reasoned debate can entrench views, rather than change or moderate them. So we need to be much smarter in how we engage.
Second, the use of non-rational props doesn’t expose PR to the old charge of spin or manipulation – far from it, in the hands of an ethical practitioner.
Non-rational influences are always going to be there; the question is whether we do our best to align these with the rational case. I’d argue that we have a duty to do so.
Third, psychologists demonstrate time and again why we should embrace the views of others.
They point to the numerous ways in which our judgements are biased; carefully distinguish our perceptions from reality; locate knowledge in the community, rather than the individual; and so forth.
In short, they provide a solid argument for Grunig & Grunig’s two way symmetrical model.
Yet none of this, of course, suggests that research is merely catching up with what PR practitioners have known all along. For every vindication of existing practice, there’s a suggestion of how we might improve.
The best practitioners and agencies know this.
I didn’t, naturally, when I first read about those new scans in the science pages. I was too busy learning my art.