One of the theoretical underpinnings of behavioral public relations has long been the well established diffusion process of decision-making. Diffusion process, introduced in 1960 by Iowa State sociologists and economists George Beal and Joe Bohlen of Iowa State University , demonstrated how media and mass communication built awareness and interest in a subject or proposed behavior. But it also revealed how critical interpersonal contact is in getting people to act.
Remember, as the late, great Patrick Jackson, PR counselor and former president of the Public Relations Society of America, frequently noted, public relations really focuses on three basic behavioral goals:
1.) Get people to do something.
2.) Get people not to do so something.
3.) Get people to allow you or your organization to do something.
Communications as a critical component of effective public relations, but it alone does not define the practice. To get to the “bottom line” of behavior, communications must be connected to strategies, plans and programs aimed at fostering interpersonal contact. As renowned researcher James Grunig of the University of Maryland has shown time and time again communications alone does not stimulate behavior.
Simply put, people influence people to take action. Take a moment and think about that first car you bought. Before you plunked down the cash or wrote the check you likely sought out the opinion of someone you respect, someone with the knowledge and experience to confirm or validate your decision. You looked for your own opinion leader in the car-buying world. Opinion leaders are highly sought after targets by public relations and marketing pros because of their ability to affect the decisions of others. They are in a position to influence other people’s behavior through interpersonal contact because they:
• Are respected.
• Have a view that carries weight in a community.
• Are catalysts for the formation of public opinion.
• Are highly interested in an issue or issues.
• Are better informed than the average person.
• Are believed to have more knowledge of a subject or issue.
• Are avid consumers of mass media.
• Are interpreters of media content.
• Actively search out information on a subject.
• Like to let their opinions be known.
• Actively share information.
Does diffusion process translate a half-century later? It surely does. And has there ever been a clearer manifestation of the value and importance of opinion leaders than the activity we see every day on social media outlets? This relatively new communications channel has opened up new conversations and accelerated contacts among people with similar interests. Some of them want to express a point of view, others want validation. Some want to make their case, others want to shoot it down. Somewhere in the growing clutter and inanity of social media are opinion leaders who have the attributes listed above. Will PR pros be able to unleash their power by engaging in social media in a meaningful way? If they do, they’ll be going a long way toward turning everybody’s favorite communications buzzwords into an important and enduring public relations and marketing tool.