Laura Petrolino

Human Connection: The Key to Better PR Strategy

By: Laura Petrolino | April 4, 2016 | 
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Human Connection: The Key to Better PR StrategyBy Laura Petrolino

Apathy is a problem many professions fight.

You see it in the medical profession, in customer service interactions, and really across all service professions (including our own).

I’m sure all of us have examples we’ve seen or heard about from clients: Firms or individuals that just simply don’t seem to care about the success and/or well-being of their clients.

They clock-in, clock-out.

And while it’s easy to think otherwise, apathetic professionals aren’t heartless, careless humans (at least for the most part), but have simply lost the sense of human connection.

That same love of connection and helping people that probably brought them to the profession to start.

And, when human connection is lost, people become numbers, statistics, and items to check off an increasingly growing to-do list.

You might have even fallen into this trap at one time or another yourself. It’s not that you didn’t care, it’s just in the busy of life you forgot that we work in a business of humans.

Human Connection Matters

I once wrote about a fascinating study in which researchers gave radiologists a series of unmarked x-rays to evaluate twice.

For the first evaluation each x-ray was accompanied by an actual photo of the patient being evaluated.

Several months later, the same radiologists were asked to review “another set of x-rays”—not realizing they were the same ones—but this time without the patient photos.

The study found doctors provided a much more comprehensive evaluation of the x-ray results when a photo of the patient accompanied the file.

In fact, approximately 80 percent of the findings reported originally were NOT reported when the photograph was omitted from the file.

That one change—a photo of a real human, helped these talented doctors form a human connection with the person behind the x-ray (and the reason they were doing the evaluation).

Human Connection in Communications

No doubt, a human connection is also crucially important for what we do.

Communications is about humans—how they think, what motivates them to act, the messages that resonate best.

If we don’t take time to understand the people we are speaking to—and see them as complex and nuanced individuals—we lose sight of the intent of the communication.

And that’s when messages become flat, or even turn-off our target audience.

And while market research, buyer personas, data, and all the amazing resources we now have to get inside the brain of our consumer are priceless and crucially important to understand the people we are trying to connect with, they don’t necessarily support the cultivation of human connection.

The Digital Disconnect

Digital communications provides us an awesome opportunity to reach and connect with people in a way we never could before.

Our great community here at Spin Sucks is a perfect example of that. We are so lucky to be able to collaborate, communicate, and connect with people around the globe—people we never would have without the digital resources we use today.

However, it’s important to realize that certain aspects of communication are lost when it is confined to email, text, and online only forums.

We use a lot of video conferencing.

These are priceless to how we operate because they add back an important visual element—crucial for deeper interpretation of what is said (and more importantly, what is not said).

And even then….something is lost.

This doesn’t mean the communication is less valuable, it just means that its easier to forget that all humans have lives beyond what we see and connect with digitally.

They encounter more external influences (both people and things, have unique and rich backgrounds, and encounter events we don’t know about, but effect everything they do and how they perceive the world.

Humans “in vivo” are different than humans “in vitro” of the digital landscape.

So how do we start to fill in that blank?

Real Life Observation and Interaction

We observe and interact with people “in vivo.”

And the great thing about this task is it doesn’t necessarily even have to be related to your industry, or the campaign you are working on (although that’s helpful as well).

In fact, the broader the variety and situations we observe people, the better. It helps expands our perspectives and break down pre-conceived ideas we might have (and we all have them).

This is fun, too.

Everyone loves people-watching and I like to think of these activities simply as professional people watching, or people watching with intention.

You can do it anytime, anywhere, for however long you’d like. But you need to do it. We work in a digital world, but in order to be successful as communications professionals we can’t get stuck there.

Aim to carve out at least a couple of hours (cumulative) of professional people-watching games each week.

They can take many forms, but here are some three of my favorites:

  1. Story creation: Go to a park or open space where people gather and linger. Find a bench and simply watch people go by. Watch the interaction between couples or groups and create stories in your head about what is going on, who they are, and their background individually and relationally. Watch people’s body language and facial expressions and try to understand interpret what they are expressing through them. How they feel? Who they are?
  2. Create a scene: You can do this anywhere. Just step back and observe the greater scene around you. What people are doing individually in context of the environment and then create a scene (like you would if you were writing a screen play for a movie) that weaves them together. This forces you to see people relationally to each other and the many shapes those relationships could take.
  3. Store hopping: This requires you to be someplace like a mall or any where there are a lot of individual stores. Go into each one and observe the people in them (both employees and shoppers) and the very different eco-system created based on those varied personalities. You’ll find stores display different human trends and communities and when you pay attention the contrasts are really fascinating. Also notice how the different environments make you feel. Where you feel comfortable, where you feel out of place and how that feeling affects your actions and emotions in relation to the brand, store, and people in it.

Don’t write anything down. Don’t make this a scientific study. It isn’t, and it isn’t supposed to be.

There are many ways we can analyze people through data and more direct research efforts.

The goal of these activities is cultivation of the more emotional and creative side of market research.

Different, but equally as important. And crucial in our ability to keep the human connection at a forefront of what we do.

About Laura Petrolino


Laura Petrolino is the chief client officer at Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She also is a weekly contributor to the award-winning PR blog, Spin Sucks.

  • Gini Dietrich

    So this is what happens when you go mall walking…

    • Laura Petrolino

      Hahaha! Yep….this is exactly what happens. Four hours of mall antics has inspired many potential blog posts to come.

  • Corina Manea

    This is a super cool post, Laura.

    It’s true we lose human connection without realizing even if we work with people all day long. This weekend I ordered a pizza usually to be delivered in 30 min. It took 1h:30 min. I called several times and every single time (even when I spoke with the manager) I got the same feeling of human disconnection. They were more busy to take the next order than to actually listen and understand you.

    Very good tips. (I am glad I am not the only one staring at people and making up stories).

    Another thing I do is watch vlogs on YouTube with the sound off. I focus on the body language and energy people in vlog have. Then I listen to them with the sound on, and it’s interesting to compare the two feedbacks.

    OK, now who’s reading this is sure we are all crazy! 🙂

    • Laura Petrolino

      Ohhh…that’s very interesting on the vlogs, what a great idea! That has to be a fascinating comparison. Our body language really gives us a way often—without us having any idea.

    • LOVE the “vlog with sound off” idea!

    • keachelpohl

      Vlogs with the sound off is very similar to my experience watching movies on airplanes — especially when I don’t buy the headsets.

      Make today outstanding!
      Kate Achelpohl

  • Great post Laura!

    • Laura Petrolino

      Thank you, sir! I’m sure you are an excellent people watcher. I think most photographers or artists are….you all have a keen sense of observation and ability to survey a situation.

  • I loved this post, Laura! Having just finished a weekend at Disney, I’ve had GOLDEN opportunities for people watching!! Your comments about the xrays reminded me of one of my favorite examples in The Checklist Manifesto. The book talks about how a simple 5-10 step checklist in surgical settings can reduce error rates drastically. One step is that every member of the surgical team has to go around the room and say their name. The very fact that the team members know each others’ names makes a difference in their shared feeling of mission, and results in better outcomes for the patients.

  • This is a great article. It’s so important to step back and evaluate life and the people around you. You mention that growing technology both helps and hurts our ability to communicate effectively; is it that some media platforms are helpful and some are not? Which ones aren’t and which ones are? Is it that media platforms that allow you to see the body language of the other person are helpful but media platforms like social media take away from the human experience and the ability to receive background, tone, mood, and feelings? This also brings up other issues that should be revisited that are often not valued in today’s technology-obsessed world; elements of communication such as thank you cards for clients, in-person meetings, meet-and-greet events, and many others. I feel that it is important to find a happy medium when it comes to technological evolution and going back to the basics.

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