It’s Getting Easier – AND Harder To Give Psychology Away

Pauline Wallin

Pauline Wallin. Photo by Debbie Joffe Ellis

Pauline Wallin, PhD
Private Practice, Camp Hill, PA

In his 1969 APA President’s address, Dr. George Miller exhorted psychologists to give psychology away. We diligently got to work, doing community presentations and writing articles, opinion pieces, and self-help books. We were interviewed by news reporters and magazine writers. A few of us had call-in radio shows and advice columns.

For the next four decades, most of our psychology-focused public education had to pass through gatekeepers – editors, producers, program directors, and publishers. They decided what would be printed or aired, in essence controlling what the general public would read, see or hear about mental health issues.

But that all changed with the development of the internet. When the World Wide Web became available in the early 1990s, one needed technical skills to post content online. However, within a few years, the internet became much more user-friendly. Social media came on the scene in the mid-2000s, enabling most people to post content and communicate with one another online. Publishing was no longer controlled by large media companies. It was open to anyone with an internet connection.

Thus, psychologists could freely communicate with the public by writing blogs, creating podcasts and videos, and curating content related to mental health. No need to submit proposals or wait for approvals. With social media such as blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, to name a few, we could publish our thoughts and advice instantly online, reaching potentially millions of people.

Psychology for the masses? Not quite …

With such direct and low-cost access to the public, one might expect that giving away psychology should be much easier now than in the last century. In some ways it is, but there are complications.

Just as technology has made it easier for psychologists to publish content online, it has also made it convenient for everyone else to do so. Anyone can post just about anything about mental health whether it is based on science or not. With no barriers or filtering, the internet has become both a treasure trove and a cesspool of information – and it is often difficult for the public to discern which is which.

A second factor to consider these days is that with the firehose-like rate of content posted online every second, people can become distracted and overwhelmed. Any given person will notice only a tiny percentage of information relevant to her or his needs. If people don’t see your tweet within a few seconds after you post it, they may miss it altogether, as a dozen new tweets pop into view.

Third, the proliferation of cable and internet news outlets has provided many more choices for the public. Consider morning TV programs. Compared with the 1970s, when people watched one of three news/entertainment shows available at the time, current morning audiences are distributed among dozens of popular shows. A psychologist doing a public education spot on Good Morning America now has a smaller proportion of the total viewing audience (although it is still a large audience).

Giving Psychology Away in the Digital Age

The massive volume of information published every second, combined with the increased segmentation of audiences, creates a challenge for psychologists who want to help educate the public about mental health issues.

It’s no longer simply enough to write a thoughtful piece and post it online or do an interview with a reporter and assume that people are watching and paying attention. More likely than not, our public education efforts will drop below the radar, unless we become more visible and relevant. Being proactive in seeking target audiences and applying a few basic marketing techniques can help psychologists stand out from the digital noise. Here are four basic strategies:

1. Post content that people want and make it visible to search engines

When people search online for answers to their questions or problems, they type keywords into the Google search box. If those keywords match content that you’ve posted, it will rank higher in the search results, especially if the keywords are part of a page title or heading.

How do you know what people are typing into the search box? You can get a rough idea by using the Google Keyword Planner, which shows the number of recent searches on a given keyword or phrase, as well as suggestions for alternative keywords.

When you post on social media, add hashtags to keywords. That way, people who run searches on hashtags that you’ve used can find your post, even if they don’t follow you on social media.

Post frequently on blogs and on social media. Each post will appear as a separate hit in Google’s search results.

Post links from one site, that point to your content on another site; for example, link from a Twitter post to your blog, or from your website to your Facebook page. Also encourage colleagues and others to link to your content. Multiple links signal to Google that the item is “popular,” and this factor is given strong weight in your ranking in Google search results.

2. Connect with audiences who can benefit

With today’s audiences self-segmented into niches, you will reach more people by creating content for specific demographics. Thus, for example, instead of writing about stress management in general, focus on different groups of people. Write one article on stress management for single parents, another on stress management for public safety workers, and so on. The articles would be similar in scope, but use different examples and advice that the specific audience can relate to.

Know your audiences. Each social media platform has statistics about its users. For example, Snapchat is used most frequently by people ages 18-24. Pinterest is used by more women than men. LinkedIn users are more likely to have a college degree than just a high school diploma.

A breakdown of audience demographics across the most popular social media platforms is available at the Pew Research Center:

Post content on social media platforms that are populated by audiences you want to reach.

3. Make yourself visible to journalists.

Have a section on your website for news media. Describe the topics you are qualified to talk about, and list links to articles and interviews that demonstrate your knowledge and communication style. If you have done TV interviews, link to them from your website. Better yet, if the news outlet provides an embed code, copy and paste it to stream the video on your own site.

Follow journalists on Twitter, and retweet or “like” some of their posts. Make sure your Twitter profile is complete so that journalists, who want to know more about your expertise, can see a summary within your profile.

If you are not already listed in APA’s media referral database, do get yourself listed. APA gets media inquiries from major news bureaus worldwide.

4. Public education in the physical world

In-person public education is still relevant. Audiences are smaller than online, but they are more likely to be paying attention. Contact local community groups and offer to give a brief presentation on a topic that would interest their members. Groups such as Rotary and Kiwanis are always looking for interesting speakers for their weekly meetings.

Whenever you give a presentation to a local group, provide a brief (1-2 pages) fact sheet or tips sheet that summarizes what you want the audience to remember. If people find your handouts helpful, they will keep them and pass them on to others.

The above are just a few ways to get maximum exposure for your public education efforts. As you can see, it takes more work than years ago, but you also have greater control over the process.

(Editor’s Note: Pauline Wallin, PhD, received the 2018 Distinguished Lifetime Contributions to Media Psychology & Technology from the APA Society of Media Psychology and Technology.)


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