Looking for a Public Relations Agency? Use our Free matching service to find the right agency for you.

User login

The Anthropology of PR

When you think anthropology, your first thought probably isn’t about its role in public relations. But while associating anthropology only with digging fossils isn’t wrong, it certainly falls short of the full picture. The purpose of anthropology is two-fold: To understand what it is to be human and to examine how different cultures shape human behaviour and communication.

At its core, cultural anthropology provides the fundamental tools for successful public relations – you need to understand your audience, what they do, why they do it and their behavioural motivations. While companies with an international brand should certainly take culture into consideration, it’s even more important to focus first on the impact this has on a company’s internal communications.

Understand what it is to be human 

In PR, the phrase “communication is key” is thrown around quite a bit. While this is true, how effective is it if we fail to understand the meaning behind what is actually being said? Communication is the means by which we express human behaviour. When you tune into the nuances of human behaviour and the motivators behind it, you begin to understand the purpose of that communication – both verbal or non-verbal.

In her book The Culture Map, Erin Meyer discusses the importance of both verbal and non-verbal communication: “Being a good listener is just as important for effective communication as being a good speaker. And both of these essential skills are equally variable from one culture to another.”

The culture you’re raised in will ultimately shape your human behaviour and it will have an impact on your communication style.

Examine how different cultures shape human behaviour and communication

Communication isn’t one-size-fits-all. Your way of communicating should be shaped by your culture. If it’s not your native culture, you need to learn and adapt to communicate effectively.

You must take a look at the different cultures and note their tendencies. For example, as Erin Meyer lays out in her culture mapping tool, the cultural communication traits of the U.S., U.K. and other Anglo-Saxon areas tend to be more direct and to the point. The less embellishment the better. However, as you move farther east into Asia to places such as India and China, you tend to find a more expressive lifestyle. Therefore, their communication styles have more subtext and narrative. When you look at European cultures such as France and Spain, you’ll find more of a middle ground.

I have experienced this first-hand. My native culture is in the U.S.; however, I have noticed differences in communication styles between home and in the U.K. One example is the amount of context provided when communicating. Though conversation is more direct and to the point in both the U.S. and U.K., when you look more closely, the “typical” U.S. style is sometimes seen as too embellished to native U.K. cultures.

A few months back, I was in a meeting in the U.K. where an American presented content he had delivered numerous times in the past – he explained and communicated why it was important to the U.K. audience. The only difference being he was used to explaining this to a U.S. audience, who preferred and expected the additional context. While this worked well back home, it had the opposite effect on the U.K. audience. Instead of appreciating the elaboration, the British found it unnecessary and felt like they were being talked at. Though it may seem like an insignificant variance, these minor nuances make a difference in how a message is interpreted and received when dealing with cross-border colleagues, clients and acquaintances in business.

The key takeaway is to understand who you are communicating with and what the cultural implications of their communication style are. Just because someone is silent in a meeting doesn’t mean they have nothing to contribute. Conversely, if someone is talking over you, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are being rude. When companies take the time to ensure their employees across borders understand each other’s cultures, they will ultimately have a more productive and open line of communication, leading to better overall success.