How does PR work? We know the processes by which we do effective public relations work, such as outreach, pitching stories, and managing relationships with influential media, but have you ever asked how PR actually works in terms of what happens inside a consumer’s head? Let’s look at some of the neuroscience behind PR to see what it is we’re truly influencing.

When a consumer is faced with a need, they have to make a series of decisions about that need. A need might be something as simple as having your coffee maker break.

Broken coffeemaker, NYC, 11/21/07 - 2 of 4

What are the options to replace it? What do those options cost? What benefits do they get? From that initial needs assessment, consumers often go to what Google calls the Zero Moment of Truth (ZMOT). In ZMOT, consumers search the web, read reviews, ask friends, consume marketing materials, and ask for outside opinions. What coffee makers got the best reviews on Amazon? What do your friends use? What coffee maker do you have at the office? Once information gathering is done, consumers will typically go through a phase of consideration, and either seek out more information or begin the purchasing process.

Now, let’s look at that initial needs assessment, before the search process begins. When a consumer conducts that needs assessment, their brain changes its focus and the contents of what’s called working memory to deal with the broken coffee maker. The brain’s working memory keeps only a limited amount of data in it, typically related to whatever task is at hand. Dr. Klaus Oberauer at the University of Zurich has done extensive research into how our working memories operate, and has found that working memory actually consists of three different mental mechanisms:


There’s a center of attention where one piece of information is being directly processed and acted upon. There’s short-term direct-access data of stuff you’re actively working on, and then there is long-term associative memory that’s invoked when your brain asks for it. In your initial needs assessment for a new coffee maker, the first place your brain goes isn’t a search engine. The first place your brain goes is to those long-term associations to see what else you know about coffee makers.

It’s this memory that we want to affect most strongly using earned media and public relations work. A steady stream of “hits” – media placements – about coffee makers can help to create a series of associations in the consumer’s long-term memory that get invoked the moment they begin the search for a new coffee maker. This is the power of effective PR – to have your brand be recalled the moment there is actual need, to be first in line or strongest in consideration for the consumer’s dollars. We don’t care about share of voice as much as we care about share of mind when a consumer is thinking about how to address their problem. To do that, we need to build large quantities of positive associations in long-term memory so that the moment the investigation process begins, we have already shaped the direction of that process in favor of the brands we’re representing.

Take this into consideration as you devise your PR and communications strategies! Become the best storyteller you can be so that your stories are remembered and recalled long after they’ve been told.

Christopher S. Penn
Vice President, Marketing Technology


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