Dunbar’s Number, Your Brain and Why Scaling Media Relations is a Bad Idea


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my brains - let me show you them © by Liz Henry

Public relations today faces a vexing problem: our brains aren’t big enough to keep up with the promise of the technology that we now have available to us. Now, I don’t mean to cast aspersions on my peers, the reality is that, regardless of industry, no one has a brain big enough to deal with the increasing power of tools that allow for great social interconnectedness.

According to Robin Dunbar, most of us can only maintain meaningful social connections with about 150 people: Dunbar’s Number. As detailed in a thoughtful Bloomberg BusinessWeek profile last month, the 150 number comes up again and again: it’s historically been the size of a military company, of an ideally sized factory, of the average Christmas-card list of a British family. Dunbar’s research suggests that the 150 number has something to do with our brain size and marks a kind of limit to how social we can be. The 150 figure isn’t unassailable; other academics have suggested the number is closer to 300. Or 600. But few suggest that our social capacities, even turbo-charged by Facebook, don’t have a finite limit.

This is obviously hugely significant to those in public relations who specialize in the “relations” part of the industry: relating to media or bloggers or investors or advocates. We have the tools to touch a hugely broad group of people with almost no effort: sending a pitch letter to 1,000 people is as easy and expensive as sending just one email. But we can’t have deep relationships with those 1,000 people. And they, in turn, can’t have relationships with us.

This isn’t theory: ask your average reporter how many PR pros he or she has a meaningful relationship with, and the answer is likely to be small: the hyper-connected might have three or four dozen; those more circumspect about PR may have fewer than 10. If you’re not in that small group, the chance of your pitch being considered drops to something close to zero.

So while we have the tools to make public relations scale, with ever-more powerful ways to find individuals and reach out to them, our effectiveness will remain limited by Dunbar’s number. Though we, as an industry, decry the “spray-and-pray” approach to disseminating news, it’s nonetheless common. After all, we can generate — and pitch — huge media lists with a speed that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.

Just because we can doesn’t mean that we should. Instead, we should start thinking about how to operate within the limits of our Dunbar number: how can we add more media (or investors or online influencer or advocates) into our 150 (hello, New York Times; goodbye, ex-girlfriend!)? How can we create enough value to enter into the 150 of media? Establishing a personal connection is not a pushbutton task; it takes genuine interest in a subject, it takes time and a willingness to learn, it takes dozens of small acts of relationship building.

That process is far more difficult than pasting the same pitch into 250 emails. But if we want to be successful, our choice is stark: start respecting the reality of Dunbar’s number, or grow a bigger brain.

Brian Reid has nearly two decades of experience as a modern storyteller. He a director at W2O Group, where he specializes in media relations and strategy. His past lives have included positions as a Bloomberg reporter, a Washington Post blogger, an NIH writer and a freelance journalist.

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