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

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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  • “Just because we can doesn’t mean that we should.” A-freaking-men! The spray and pray approach to media relations drives me insane. I’d MUCH rather have 30 or 40 really solid media connections and get stories out of them every time I have compelling news than send that information to 1,000 journalists and not get a single bite. Thanks for furthering the message!

    • Thanks for the comment, Gini. This dovetails with your post from yesterday: the issue is only partly that PR people break your rules. After all, when reporters or bloggers are close friends (or even good acquaintances), you don’t have to worry about emailing too often or being disrespectful on Twitter.

      • EXACTLY! I received a pitch from a friend just the other day. I opened it because we’re friends first. I’ll use it because it was well-researched and pitched appropriately.

  • John Trader

    Excellent post Brian. Regarding your comment about booting the “ex” and welcoming in a more credible, productive relationship with a media outlet rings true for a lot of people. I think as humans, we fear cutting ties and expelling people from our social circles (or “blanket fort” as Erika Napolteano calls it) because of the damage it can have to our reputations. However, now more than ever as effective PR pros, we need to pick and choose our relationships very carefully and not worry so much about offending people as forging productive relationships with those that care, and matter.

    Welcome to the PRBC community!

    • Thanks for the welcome! The whole issue of cutting ties is an interesting one, and one that I haven’t really thought about in the context of PR. Probably a helpful — if uncomfortable — process in this era of “friend” collection.

  • Great post, Brian. In today’s digital age, a reminder about the value and power of personal relationships is always worthwhile. It’s easy to get wrapped up behind the screen and let your in-person connections suffer as a result.

  • I’ve beat this drum aplenty, but it bears another verse.

    Dunbar’s number is not “The number of people you can know well;” it’s a bigger concept than that. It represents the theoretical maximum number of people who can all know each other.

    The better way to think about this is: “What’s the largest-size high school class where everyone knows who dated everyone else?”

    I cringe when I think about how Dunbar has been marketed by social networks like Path. “We limit you to 150 friends.” But that misses the point entirely, because you don’t have an inclusive community of 150 people who all know each other. I have people in my Path who aren’t in your path, and some in yours aren’t in mine — and we might have people in each of ours who aren’t in each others!

    • It’s always good to be set straight on the science of it all, and I apologize for bastardizing the purity of the concept. The other links — to the 300-odd number and the 600-odd number — are more precisely focused on the size of an individual’s set of contacts. I chose to focus on “150” because it is the one that seems to have captured the public’s imagination.

      But — even properly used — the Dunbar concept still applies to media relations: on every beat, there is a community of experts, journalists, sources and flacks that functions like Dunbar’s favorite examples (the Gore factories, military companies, etc.) If you’re a part of that community, your ideas get considered. If you’re not, you’re just shouting into the void.