The Behavioral Communications research program is sponsored by ExxonMobil, Public Affairs Council, Mosaic, and Gagen MacDonald.​

Dr. Terry FlynnThis is the second post in a series introducing IPR’s new Behavioral Communication Research Program.

You’ve seen countless communicators, over the years, that have immediately connected with individuals and influenced how we thought about an issue or responded to a crisis event. On the other hand, we have also witnessed (usually captured on video and posted on the Internet) examples of fundamental communications failures where the act of communication usually creates increased anger and outrage among the target audiences.

For researchers, understanding what makes for effective communications and effective communicators is a fundamental question that many of us have spent years investigating. There is of course research that suggests that those organizations that have strong relationships with their priority publics will be more effective while at the same time studies have also shown that the credibility of the source (the communicator) can also influence the outcomes of public relations programs.

But what really drives the outcomes that are at the heart of strategic communications: positive, supportive behaviors. If we want more families to vaccinate their children, then we need to understand what types of communicative activities and behaviors we must undertake to persuade them to take the desired action. If we want our employees to engage in changing our workplaces, then we need to understand their attitudes and beliefs and the resistances that they have to the proposed changes before we can develop communications programs that lead to behavioral changes.

For communicators to have the potential to influence individual attitudes and beliefs, the research is clear: the communicator must be seen to be credible, expert, fair, authentic and trustworthy. If the targeted audience believes that the communicator has these attributes, there is a greater chance that their attitudes and behaviors will be influenced by the communicator – if they don’t, the communications will likely fail.

At the recent annual International Public Relations Research Conference in Miami, I had the opportunity to present some of our initial thinking and research on this new and growing field of behavioral communications. I lead a discussion on the importance of the attributes and skills of communicators in influencing attitudes and beliefs as well as the steps that narrative communications (stories) need to take in order to potentially influence how individuals may respond to the intent and content of our messages.

During one of the presentations, a much-respected and long-time advocate for the relationship model of public relations stated that he was concerned about our approach because it was “a behavioralist approach to public relations” – suggesting that understanding how people think and respond to persuasive messages could potentially present an ethical dilemma for those who are developing the communication and those that are receiving the messages. While I respect and admire the decades of research that this scholar has undertaken, I was struck by the somewhat limited conceptualization of how public relations can be operationalized and measured – yes relationships are fundamentally important to building trust  and credibility but understanding why some relationships don’t work may in fact lead us to a better understanding of the attributes and behaviors that lead to more resilient and sustainable relationships and reputations.

Over the coming weeks and months, my colleague Chris Graves and I will release a series of “landscape papers” on the key foundations of behavioral communications to help you and our industry understand the foundations of the science behind this new field. We will explore and define concepts that are regularly used in the disciplines of neuroscience, cognitive behavior and psychology and apply them to examples and case studies in public relations. We will also present theoretical models that we believe can be used in the profession in order to create more effective public relations strategies and campaigns.

The environments in which we communicate today are more complex and more chaotic then ever before. Communicative technologies have enabled us to better pinpoint our target audiences and develop specific and measurable communications activities to get our messages through the clutter and yet we continue to see campaigns and strategies that don’t increase supportive behaviors.

We look forward to exploring some of those case studies and providing you with new insights, perspectives and tools to help you ultimately achieve your communicative goals and objectives.

Dr. Terence Flynn,  APR, Fellow CPRS, is an assistant professor of communications management in the Department of Communication Studies and Multimedia at McMaster University and a Trustee of IPR.

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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