The primary objective of public relations work is to build “mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” This is the definition of PR on the PRSA’s website, and essentially, it is about communication—how to communicate with audiences.
A fair amount of that communication involves informing opinions, or, put more directly, changing minds—or at least opening them to other possibilities, other arguments, or another way of seeing things. Whether it is to convince a customer to try a new product or a campaign to get people to take the stairs rather than the elevator at work, a good chunk of PR work is about changing behaviors.
So why don’t more PR practitioners study more of the work of behavioral scientists?
Behavioral science as a term has been around since the 1950s, but the fields associated with behavioral science—including anthropology, sociology, and psychology—have been around much longer. It’s also generally recognized that the field also includes the study of human behavior aspects of biology, political science, and psychiatry. The term basically encompasses the scientific study of individual or group human behavior, which is why it touches on so many different, established fields of study.
One facet of behavioral science that has seen considerable “buzz” lately is the study of human decision-making processes. The 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded to Daniel Kahneman for his study of the psychology of how humans make economic decisions when faced with uncertainty. This led to research revealing that minor adjustments in settings or presentation can significantly alter decision-making outcomes. Grocery stores are a good example of this—by placing certain items at aisle end caps, they can increase the sales on those items, even if the prices aren’t reduced.
Behavioral “nudges” were popularized in a 2008 book authored by Cass R. Sunstein and Richard Thaler. In the book, titled “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness,” the two authors advanced the notion that the decisions that human beings make could be shaped and “nudged” in specific directions, which they argued should be done to impact social good in an affirmative way.
Human beings are required to make umpteen decisions during each and every day. Most decisions are such a part of our routine existence that we don’t really register them as making decisions at all—such as what to eat for breakfast, what to wear each day, or whether to stop and get gas on the way to work or on the way home. Nevertheless, constant decision making does have consequences. Researchers have found that as a day progresses, our minds wear down a bit from all of the choices, and we start to get a little bit sloppier, a bit more careless, and exerting less self-control. This phenomenon has been dubbed “decision fatigue,” and this too has implications for communicators and PR professionals.
How PR fits in
Understanding the basic premises underlying these two behavioral science concepts can help a PR practitioner to structure a communications strategy that is more effective, particularly if the campaign centers on any type of decision making.
Marketers and salespeople already know, and use, this information when they plan product marketing and sales strategies. As PR people design and structure measurement plans to map back to business goals, understanding the how and why of marketing and sales becomes increasingly important. Much of PR is the art and science of persuasion. It makes sense then to at least become acquainted with behavioral science and how it can help to explain decision-making processes.