Cary Greenwood (2010) was the first scholar to emphasize the potential of the theory of evolution for public relations and strategic communication research. Using the words of Theodosius Dobzhansky (1973), Greenwood stated that “nothing in public relations makes sense except in the light of evolution” (2010, p. 471). Since then, her call to incorporate evolutionary theory into public relations theory development has been, by and large, left unanswered – some notable exceptions not withstanding (Marsh, 2012; 2013; 2017; Nothhaft, 2016; Seiffert-Brockmann & Thummes, 2017).
More than a decade ago, Glen Broom observed that “we have traditionally cited publications from communication, journalism, marketing, and other social sciences, but do not see our publications cited by scholars in other fields” (Broom, 2006, p. 149). Some scholars go even as far as to state that public relations is a field in isolation (Dühring, 2015). This article suggests that the introduction of evolutionary thinking into the field of public relations could help to overcome this isolation. In doing so the paper follows Nothhaft’s call for a consilient approach, i.e. to commit “to the unity of knowledge from physics to chemistry to biology and beyond” (2016, p. 69) in public relations research.
Other fields of research in the social sciences, like marketing, have since long adopted evolutionary frameworks as a basis. The fundamental motives framework (FMF) proposed by scholars like Gad Saad, Vladas Griskevicius, Douglas Kenrick, or Kristina Durante (Durante & Griskevicius, 2016; Griskevicius & Kenrick, 2013; Kenrick et al., 2010; Saad, 2007; Schaller et al., 2017), unites the field of evolutionary psychology with marketing, showing “how evolutionary needs influence consumer behavior” (Griskevicius & Kenrick, 2013, p. 372). By shifting the emphasis from consumer behavior to stakeholder behavior, from material outcomes like purchase behavior to immaterial dimensions like reputation, image, or trust, the same could be achieved for the field of public relations.
Evolutionary psychology suggests that humans developed “cognitive adaptations for social exchange” (Cosmides & Tooby, 1992, p. 163), which influence decision-making and behavior in social encounters. These adaptations evolved due to the challenge of long-standing problems our ancestors experienced in their hunter-gatherer environment. The fundamental motives framework encompasses challenges in domains of social interaction: “affiliation, status, self-protection, mate search, mate retention, and kin care” (Kenrick & Li, 2012, pp. 127-128). By discussing the implications of the fundamental motives framework against the background of the most prominent strand of research in the field of public relations – organization-public relationships (OPR) – the paper will outline the prospects of incorporating evolutionary thinking into public relations research. To that end, the paper will proceed in three steps. First, the literature concerning organization-public relationships and the fundamental motives framework is being reviewed. With regard to both concepts, the underlying theory and empirical findings are scrutinized. Second, the fundamental motives framework is applied to OPR, showing how psychological mechanisms potentially influence the communication process during the establishment, maintenance, and breakdown of relationships. Finally, the implications of evolutionary psychology in general, and the fundamental motives framework in particular, for public relations research are discussed.