Nudge the people

About the author

Ann is a co-founder of PR Academy. Her special areas of interest are internal communication, change management and project communication. MSc, Dip CAM, MCIPR

Changing behaviour isn’t easy but it is what a lot of PR seeks to achieve. That is why Sophie Harper, Communications Manager at Sovereign Housing Association decided to explore it for her CIPR Diploma in Public Relations. This is what she found….

“Barack Obama’s communications team includes a group called the Consortium of Behavioural Scientists (COBS). David Cameron established the Behavioural Change Insights Team as part of the coalition government, also known as the ‘nudge unit’.

Society has changed. Gone are the days when we would obediently walk to the post office to cash our benefits or drink more milk if an authority told us to.

We are now inundated with information and advice daily, both online and offline. The consumer has evolved and changing the behaviour of society now requires much more than a simple poster.

If you work in PR for a public sector organisation like the NHS or a housing association, you will probably understand this struggle more than most. As a communications professional currently working in social housing myself, I was keen to unravel what this all means for the average practitioner.

The final research project for my PR Diploma explored the role of persuasion in our modern world, specifically its relevance and use for social marketing or public information campaigns. This research surveyed practitioners working in social housing and revealed that 91% were required to manage behavioural change campaigns and that the majority considered this a regular part of their job role.

Ranking top were campaigns about money management and saving energy. Most people also felt that they experienced difficulties when managing behavioural change campaigns, with resourcing and internal politics being the biggest issues.

So what if we are telling people to pay rent on time or to smoke less – how can public sector campaigns compete with everything else in our modern world?

The answer, it seems, could be to harness human psychology and social science to our advantage. Obama’s campaign to save energy in the home enjoyed unprecedented success by showing people the energy bills of neighbours. This along with other campaign tactics exploited the concept of social pressure and Cialdini’s social proof principle, playing on the fact that we instinctively refer to others when forming our own behaviours.

Despite the evidence that using human psychology to persuade can deliver improved results, it is an area of PR that has been neglected.

Social science started to develop thinking around persuasion at the beginning of the 20th century and it was quickly exploited by PR professionals including the likes of Edward Bernays. Its use during the world wars, notably Nazi Germany, tarnished the reputation of persuasion and created negative links with propaganda.

As the public relations profession has grown, persuasion has remained a controversial area. Academics have debated its role for the best part of the last century, particularly in relation to ethical boundaries.

Most PR text books avoid the subject entirely and very few explore persuasion in any real detail, including the ubiquitous Excellence Theory from Grunig and Hunt. This has been the source of much debate given that their guidance positions persuasion in the ‘Press Agentry’ model which is considered the less desirable way of working.

The majority of contemporary thinking still sits within the field of social science, which is perhaps why specialists in psychology are being brought into communications teams.

So could Obama and Cameron’s interest in the science of persuading be leading a renaissance? The birth of the term ‘nudge’ and its use to describe the burgeoning variety of theories and ideas about persuasion could be testament to this.

My research with practitioners working in social housing revealed an appetite and interest in developing skills in this area. Nearly half of the participants believed they had used nudge techniques, but interestingly most felt their understanding was basic and that they would benefit from learning more.

The PR community needs to move on from the stigma and controversy that surrounded persuasion in the 20th century, and to look at its use in our modern environment with fresh eyes.

Practitioners, particularly those in the public sector, need to embrace this growing area of expertise, develop new skills and enter into open discussion about the realities of using persuasive psychology.

This will not only help the development of the profession, but will leave practitioners in a better position to tease out the challenges that they face by enabling them to be more ethical, strategic and cost effective when managing campaigns.

If you work in public sector PR and communications – get to grips with nudging and think differently. It could make your job easier and your communications smarter.”

Thanks Sophie!

A bit about Sophie….she has more than eight years of PR and communications experience in both not-for-profit and retail sectors. Her experience includes social housing, reputation management and customer engagement.  Although she already held a BA (Hons) in Media, Journalism and Promotion, she recently completed the PR Diploma.