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The Psychology of PR: Understanding and Persuading the News Media and Its Audience

By Scott Sobel, M.A. Media Psychology, President, Media & Communications Strategies, Inc.

What is the primary goal of most journalists? You may think you know but you probably don’t. If you respond, getting a story factually correct or breaking news, you are only partly right, but going in the right direction. If you can’t answer that question definitively then you will never be in control of interviews and you will never know how to connect and persuade a media audience using psychological theory.

The answer to the primary goal of most journalists: Staying employed. Just like most of us.

Persuading journalists, developing meaningful relationships with them, controlling interviews and effectively reaching audiences can be accomplished when you apply primal human needs driven by the brain’s limbic system and explained through Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Journalists, like most of us, actually are motivated by simplistic needs. There may be some socially redemptive and self-actualizing results but the journalists, news and entertainment audiences are pushed and pulled by basic psychological and even physical motivators.

I am not guessing about what drives the news producers, newsmakers and news viewers. My bifurcated career—twenty years a journalist and twenty years in corporate and agency public relations—allows me to view the media through, what I believe, is a very realistic filter. A filter, which now includes a graduate degree in media psychology. By the way, I am convinced that all of us PR practitioners greatly benefit, as do our clients, a familiarity with learning the psychological basics, especially the thoughts and writings of Edward Bernays (Sigmund Freud’s nephew and widely considered the father of modern public relations), concerning persuasion and propaganda (propaganda theory is very old, coming from "the propagation of the faith," and doesn’t only relate to negative propaganda).

So, to have the best chance of controlling an interview with a journalist or blogger, please consider taking these steps:

  • Ask the journalist, "What is the headline for your story?"
  • Understand the journalist’s history and job focus
  • Know the type and audience of the media outlet
  • Determine the short term and long term needs of both the journalist and the media outlet (providing a short quote or sound bite to fill a "news hole" or a more in-depth response  to develop a long-term credible relationship as a source for other story lines, as well)
  • Develop an interview plan that can satisfy the needs of both your client and the journalist
  • Prepare a pitch or response to implement your interview plan and then ask the journalist the big question after the interview is over, "Did the interview help you get what you needed to complete your story?"

PR practitioners who understand the power of basic psychology for leveraging your tools of persuasion will invariably be more successful in all of their communications endeavors. This roadmap to great PR results works for all communication scenarios and for all types of journalists and social media or traditional media targets. The PR practitioner should also ask, "what would persuade me, if I was the journalist?" This strategy, a kind of "PR Golden Rule," will greatly increase your chances of hitting those home runs for your client and also satisfy your basic need of staying employed and keeping your career path pointed in the right direction.

Scott Sobel and the Media & Communications Strategies, Inc. Team are the 2013 Bulldog Stars of PR Crisis Category Gold Award Recipient.

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