Talk to most PR professionals about behaviourism, cognitivism and constructivism and they recoil in horror. Academic psychology, it seems, is gobbledygook for many in the industry. However, ask them about how they might try to change or mould attitudes among key audiences and they can happily talk for hours.
The IPR defines PR as: 'The discipline which looks after reputation, with the aim of earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behaviour. It is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics.'
The OED's definition of psychology bears similarities: 'The scientific study of the human mind and its functions, especially those affecting behaviour in a given context'. If both definitions are to be believed then PR is irrefutably grounded in psychology and is surely more science than art.
Some argue that a good PRO will have an intuitive understanding of psychology, their inherent communication skills helping them to understand what it is that makes various audiences tick.
That may be true, but there are many PROs who don't have a clue. Keith Macmillan, of the Centre for Organisational Relationships at Henley Management College, says PROs should not solely rely on an intuitive understanding of psychology - keeping up to date with research on how reputations are enhanced or ruined is key to doing a good job: 'You can't just rely on intuitive knowledge. Too much communications is done without solid theory or empirical work to back it up.'
In any case, says Michael Bland, an independent PR consultant, to argue that some people may have an intuitive understanding of psychological issues misses the point: 'It can be intuitive and it can be taught. What depresses me is the lack of desire within the PR profession to learn more about these issues so they can put that knowledge to good use.'
Those who advocate more of a scientific approach to PR point to a range of benefits. Firstly, it can boost understanding of what causes a particular reaction from a target group and that can be crucial in developing future campaigns. Instead of working on hunches, you can frame your work on the basis of studies of how various groups react to situations.
Dr Jon White, an associate at Henley Management College, goes so far as to claim that public relations is applied psychology. 'If you think that PR is a professional practice then it has to be based on an established body of knowledge. That body of knowledge lies in psychology.'
If a basic knowledge of psychology is as important as the experts think it is to PROs, then the industry needs to take a long, hard look at itself.
A quick ring round of PR folk had many of them diving for cover. Others passed the buck until there was no longer any buck to pass - one leading supermarket chain shuffled the enquiry through five people in the PR department until they ran out of options. 'I think we'd rather not comment on the issue,' was the eventual response. The head of PR at a charity quickly came to the conclusion that she was sure there must be 'an incredible link with psychology. But I've never given it too much thought. Can I call you back?' She is still thinking.
So you don't know your cognitive dissonance theory from your cognitive consistency theory? Then it may be time to go back to the classroom. Cary Cooper from UMIST explains that cognitive dissonance theory tells us that if a person holds a particular attitude towards something, say politics, then it is possible to change that person's perception by slowly hitting them with dissonant - i.e. contrary - information. He gives the example of a right-wing person in favour of capital punishment. They might slowly be persuaded round to oppose the death penalty if consistently presented with opposing factual information, such as capital punishment actually increases crime. Cooper notes that Saatchi & Saatchi used cognitive dissonance thinking in devising campaigns for the Conservative Party in the early 1980s.
Cognitive consistency theory, on the other hand, suggests that you shouldn't present an audience with conflicting messages. Giving them information that is at cross-purposes is likely to cause a consumer to react against a product, explains Paul Buckley, a consumer psychology consultant from Bristol. For example, it was fine for Pepsi to use the Spice Girls in its promotional material as long as the Spice Girls upheld the values it was trying to link with the product. He points out that when Michael Jackson became embroiled in scandal he was dropped by Pepsi overnight.
But isn't all of this just common sense? 'It may be for some people who use psychology intuitively in PR,' says Cooper. 'The trouble is that they may not be communicating their intuitive knowledge to the people who they work with who need it.'
'Psychology gives you a framework to use as a checklist,' Buckley says.
'It helps you think about what you are trying to get over and how you present the information. When you are working on something in PR you are part of the issue, heavily involved in the project. Psychology can help you stand back and make it easy to see why a campaign won't work.'
John Preston, Ruder Finn deputy MD, cites Petty and Cacioppo's research into persuasive communication. 'They divided the intention to process information into an emotional component, determining the likelihood of people to process information, and the depth of knowledge that would enhance understanding and thus predict behavioural change,' he says. They argue that advertising manipulates emotion, in other words reasons to process information. PR offers a depth of understanding and detailed messages, with advertorials somewhere between the two.
According to Preston, Monsanto failed to realise the model. It came into the market with an advertorial that failed to understand the emotional side of things and misunderstood the balance of promoting and the reasons of understanding against the depth of knowledge.
Persuasive communication has been exhaustively studied in psychology.
After the second world war, psychologists tried to establish why people responded to Nazism. Was it possible some personalities were more susceptible to propaganda than others? The conclusion was that there is a certain personality type that is - an authoritarian personality, i.e. someone that is fundamentally weak but becomes stronger by identifying with a higher authority. This principle can be applied to the adoption of an authority figure or opinion leader in a PR strategy.
The model of threat analysis is derived from cognitive psychology and was developed by psychologist Tony Carr's work into obsessive compulsive disorder. Two assessments are made about an individual given a single threat - how likely it is to happen and what happens if it occurs. An example is that say objectively there is a one among seven million bag of crisps that is contaminated by glass.
Mrs Smith, however, is convinced that the bag she buys will be contaminated.
The second factor is that most people think, subjectively, that if glass is ingested then it will cut their insides. However, objectively, it will pass harmlessly through one's digestive system. If a crisis management campaign misses one of these points then there is a problem. There is albeit little chance of becoming a victim, however, if one does then the reality is that they are likely to be fine.
Buckley points to the advantages of high- and low-involvement research in determining how a company might approach a promotional campaign. A high-involvement issue is something that is likely to have a key effect on the lives of people who use it, maybe buying a car or a holiday. They are likely to be interested in the product or service for itself and not just using it as a means to an end. These types of campaigns are likely to be most effective when a balanced/two-sided argument is put to consumers, rather than a direct 'buy me!'-type appeal. The campaign might even benefit, for example, from a discussion of its benefits relative to the competition.
Low-involvement products or services, on the other hand, such as a can of baked beans, are merely a means to an end for the consumer and more likely to benefit from a direct appeal. Consumers are unlikely to spend a lot of time analysing the situation prior to purchase. The intelligence of the target audience should also be taken into account when deciding upon two-sided arguments or one-sided appeals. 'People get lots of information thrown at them every day and they're not interested in most of it,' adds Buckley. 'PR people should be thinking about what they are trying to achieve: do they want to get someone's attention or do they want to try to change behaviour?'
Deborah Jones, PR course leader at Bournemouth University, says that psychology is a thread of the degree course, especially in the Persuasion & Influence and Communication in Groups units. 'It's a combination of both academic thinking and a practical approach mixed with a business context. We look at how audiences can be persuaded in their thinking and the ethics of that sort of persuasion,' says Jones.
But are psychological models actually being applied to PR practice? Hazel Smith, Essex County Council senior media officer says, 'If certain issues are presented in the wrong kind of way then you'll find it can harden attitudes rather than achieve the change you are looking for.'
Smith points to a recent situation where a council campaign on waste had to combat some intensive lobbying from outside interest groups. The PR department used psychological techniques to analyse how public opinion was forming and - when necessary - how to go about changing that opinion.
Before joining Ruder Finn, Preston helped to set up a breast cancer website.
Psychologists were brought onboard in its development. It was ensured that all content was of a reading age of 11 - the national average. He argues this factor should also apply to segmenting media. Varying tones are required for varying audience segments.
According to Robert Blood, an issues analyst at his eponymous agency, more academic approach in some instances would allow PROs to do the things they are already doing but do them a whole lot better. 'It's also a way of raising fees and prestige. If PR wants to get smarter and spend bigger budgets then it's got to look like it knows what it is doing,' he says.
That could mean going back to school or, at the very least, taking time out for extra training and devoting resources to ensuring you are up to speed with the latest thinking. But such an investment might just turn this art into a science.