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Theory of Mind: A Superpower for PR Professionals

Discover what sets exceptional communicators apart.

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

Theory of Mind is a super­power in pub­lic relations.

The abil­ity to com­pre­hend the thoughts and emo­tions of oth­ers holds trans­form­at­ive poten­tial in the realm of com­mu­nic­a­tion. By grasp­ing the intric­a­cies of people’s inner worlds, one can revo­lu­tion­ize their approach to inter­per­son­al interactions. 

Delving deep­er into the Theory of Mind is vital in this journey. 

Enhancing your aware­ness of this concept can sig­ni­fic­antly increase your com­mu­nic­a­tion skills.

Here we go:

A Brief History of Theory of Mind

The concept of the Theory of Mind was first intro­duced in the 1970s by devel­op­ment­al psy­cho­lo­gists who were study­ing the way chil­dren under­stand oth­ers’ beliefs, inten­tions, and emotions. 

Through vari­ous exper­i­ments, research­ers have dis­covered that chil­dren begin to under­stand that people have dif­fer­ent thoughts and feel­ings based on their unique per­spect­ives and exper­i­ences around age four. 1Theory of mind. (2023, April 21). In Wikipedia.

As the study of the Theory of Mind evolved, research­ers found that it plays a cru­cial role in social cog­ni­tion and inter­per­son­al rela­tion­ships. It enables us to pre­dict and inter­pret oth­ers’ actions, empath­ise, and com­mu­nic­ate effectively. 

Today, the Theory of Mind is con­sidered an essen­tial aspect of human inter­ac­tion, which can bene­fit PR pro­fes­sion­als in numer­ous ways.

Identifying Theory of Mind in PR and Communications

In psy­cho­logy, the­ory of mind refers to the capa­city to under­stand oth­er people by ascrib­ing men­tal states to them (that is, sur­mising what is hap­pen­ing in their mind). This includes the know­ledge that oth­ers’ men­tal states may be dif­fer­ent from one’s own states and include beliefs, desires, inten­tions, emo­tions, and thoughts.”
Source: Wikipedia

PR pro­fes­sion­als and com­mu­nic­at­ors with a strong Theory of Mind can bet­ter under­stand their audi­ence, cre­ate more com­pel­ling mes­sages, and build last­ing relationships. 

Here are sev­en real-life situ­ations where the Theory of Mind can make a difference:

  • Crafting a press release that res­on­ates with journalists.
  • Tailoring pitches for diverse audi­ences.
  • Managing a crisis com­mu­nic­a­tion situ­ation with empathy.
  • Understanding the emo­tions behind social media interactions.
  • Adjusting the tone of a speech for vari­ous stake­hold­ers.
  • Anticipating how dif­fer­ent pub­lics will per­ceive a campaign.
  • Engaging in suc­cess­ful nego­ti­ation tac­tics with cli­ents and partners.

Enhancing Your Theory of Mind Awareness

To improve your Theory of Mind as a PR pro­fes­sion­al, con­sider these three mindsets:

  • Practice act­ive listen­ing. Pay atten­tion to verbal and non-verbal cues to truly under­stand the per­spect­ive of others.
  • Practice empathy daily. As a daily exer­cise, put your­self in someone else’s shoes and ima­gine their thoughts, feel­ings, and experiences.
  • Reflect on past inter­ac­tions. Analyse how you could have bet­ter under­stood the inten­tions and emo­tions of oth­ers in vari­ous situations

Please sup­port my blog by shar­ing it with oth­er PR- and com­mu­nic­a­tion pro­fes­sion­als. For ques­tions or PR sup­port, con­tact me via jerry@​spinfactory.​com.

Literature Suggestions

Apperly, I. A. (2011). Mindreaders: The cog­nit­ive basis of “Theory of Mind”. Psychology Press.

Baron-Cohen, S., Leslie, A. M., & Frith, U. (1985). Does the aut­ist­ic child have a “the­ory of mind”? Cognition, 21(1), 37 – 46.

Premack, D., & Woodruff, G. (1978). Does the chim­pan­zee have a the­ory of mind? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1(4), 515 – 526.

PR Resource: Perception Management

Walter Lippmann: Public Opinion and Perception Management

No one is basing their atti­tudes and beha­viours on real­ity; we’re basing them on our per­cep­tions of real­ity.

Walter Lippmann (1889 – 1974) pro­posed that our per­cep­tions of real­ity dif­fer from the actu­al real­ity. The real­ity is too vast and too com­plex for any­one to pro­cess. 2Lippmann, Walter. 1960. Public Opinion (1922). New York: Macmillan.

  • One who effect­ively man­ages the per­cep­tions of pub­lics acts as a mor­al legis­lat­or, cap­able of shap­ing atti­tudes and beha­viours accord­ing to the cat­egor­ic­al imperative.

The research on per­cep­tion man­age­ment is focused on how organ­isa­tions can cre­ate a desired repu­ta­tion:

The OPM [Organizational Perception Management] field focuses on the range of activ­it­ies that help organ­isa­tions estab­lish and/or main­tain a desired repu­ta­tion (Staw et al., 1983). More spe­cific­ally, OPM research has primar­ily focused on two inter­re­lated factors: (1) the tim­ing and goals of per­cep­tion man­age­ment activ­it­ies and (2) spe­cif­ic per­cep­tion man­age­ment tac­tics (Elsbach, 2006).”
Source: Hargis, M. & Watt, John 3Hargis, M. & Watt, John. (2010). Organizational per­cep­tion man­age­ment: A frame­work to over­come crisis events. Organization Development Journal. 28. 73 – 87.

Today, our per­cep­tions are heav­ily influ­enced by news media and influ­en­cers, algorithms, and social graphs. Therefore, per­cep­tion man­age­ment is more crit­ic­al than ever before.

We are all cap­tives of the pic­ture in our head — our belief that the world we have exper­i­enced is the world that really exists.”
— Walter Lippmann

Learn more: Walter Lippmann: Public Opinion and Perception Management

1 Theory of mind. (2023, April 21). In Wikipedia.
2 Lippmann, Walter. 1960. Public Opinion (1922). New York: Macmillan.
3 Hargis, M. & Watt, John. (2010). Organizational per­cep­tion man­age­ment: A frame­work to over­come crisis events. Organization Development Journal. 28. 73 – 87.
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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