Image courtesy of Wikimedia

The new rules of attraction – PR and nudge theory

By John Higginson and Gabrielle Lane

Small tweaks to messages can trigger significant behavioural changes. That’s the principle behind ‘nudge’ thinking. Now data processing is enabling mass personalisation on an even larger scale.

Assuming power can be a chastening experience. Even a leader as self-assured as new US president Donald Trump may be surprised by just how difficult it is to get things done.

A year into his own presidency, Barack Obama was asked by New York Times journalist Jeff Zeleny what had humbled him most since taking office. Obama replied: “I am sobered by the fact that change in Washington comes slow. I am humbled by the fact that the presidency is extremely powerful but I can’t just press a button and have bankers do exactly what I want or turn a switch and suddenly have Congress fall in line.” The inability to live up to the promise of change would cast a shadow over Obama’s two terms in office.

When David Cameron was elected prime minister in May 2010, he entered office with few illusions about how hard legislative change would be. He led a divided coalition government, and his modernising agenda had taken the Conservatives in a direction that many were deeply uncomfortable with.

According to his former director of strategy, Steve Hilton, Cameron became a big fan of the book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness, by Richard Thaler and Cass R Sunstein, after picking up a copy from the desk of a young policy adviser. Within weeks, he’d recruited a small team of social psychologists and behavioural economists, led by psychologist Dr David Halpern.

The team looked into ways of changing behaviour without the need for legislation. If objectives could be achieved without input from Parliament, it would make effective government a lot easier.

Managing director Owain Service joined the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), known as the ‘nudge unit’, two months after it was set up. “There was a team of around six or seven of us back then. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, a lot of people were questioning if regulation was working in the way originally envisaged,” he says.

“What we started to do was look at how people made decisions in the real world; then we rigorously tested our theory. There was a lot of scepticism about whether what we were doing would actually work in practice. But, when we started showing that even small changes can make quite a lot of difference, that’s when people really started taking notice.”

Over the coming years, the BIT team recorded a series of big wins. Making a small change to the wording of messages on a website for people registering their driver’s licence led to 100,000 more people carrying organ-donor cards. Jobseekers who spoke to someone about their plans to find a job the moment they went to a Jobcentre, rather than filling out forms, were 20% less likely to be on benefits 13 weeks later. When callers to the 999 emergency number were made to wait six seconds before their call was answered, nuisance callers were prompted to disconnect.

For policymakers, civil servants and advisers, this was liberating. In a world of 24-hour news, the painstaking process of creating legislation felt like driving a horse and cart down the M1. Being able to improve behaviour, raise revenue and save taxes without the need to pass through two Houses and get the Queen’s rubber stamp felt like jumping into a BMW. Every government department and council wanted a piece.

“Behavioural theory is a powerful tool for the government communicator, and you don’t need to be an experienced social scientist to apply it successfully to your work,” says executive director of government communications Alex Aiken. “Behavioural theory is relevant to all communications disciplines and I expect all communicators to have a good grounding in its application.”


Nudging is no longer limited to governments. Charities and corporations are using more subtle ways to get their messages across to potential customers and stakeholders. Asthma UK, Catch 22 and testicular-cancer charity the Movember Foundation have all employed the services of BIT, which has now spun off as a private-sector consultancy.

In a similar vein, authorities in the City turned to organisational psychologist Ajit Menon, founder of change-management consultancy Blacklight Advisory, to understand why compliance teams, which were meant to stop high-risk behaviour, failed in 2007.

“We found in the big financial firms that those with back-office functions felt they could not stand up to the perceived authority of the traders,” says Menon. “There was an inherent hierarchy that held them back from challenging the status quo, even though, in some cases, it was their role to challenge bad behaviour.”

Menon and his team worked with City leaders to change the culture and make it psychologically easier for whistleblowers to come forward.


Using behavioural psychology is not new to public relations. Back in the early 1920s, Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, used psychology to promote sales of bacon for the Beech-Nut Packing Company. Moreover, Robert Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion has made a huge impact among PR professionals since it was first published in 1984 – just look at the title of this magazine.

Dr Jon White runs a CIPR course on the role of psychology in campaign design. As a chartered psychologist, he has used behavioural psychology to help create communications strategies for clients such as Shell, British Airways and National Express.

“There has been a renewal of interest in behavioural psychology in recent years that has been driven by governments looking to make savings following the economic crisis,” he says. “The old idea that there is a static target audience is wrong. People are very active. They are constantly moving. Communications strategies today need to be underpinned by far more research into how to reach them and at what time.”

Mark Pinnes, deputy managing director of London-based Flagship Consulting, which counts AIG, DLR, Serco, Greenwich Council and ABTA among its clients, agrees. “The science is always developing; we actively monitor for new and interesting findings, and weave them into our communications strategies wherever we think it will help get the job done,” he says. “The better we understand people’s hidden motivations, the more effectively we can communicate and influence.”


While insights are traditionally drawn from past field experiments with a small sample, artificial intelligence is now helping to derive behavioural insight almost instantly from the estimated 2.5 billion gigabytes of data generated each day. “If you are able to understand what everyone is up to on a communications network, you can deploy campaigns in real time against customers in reaction to their experience,” says Mark Wall, partner at IBM Global Business Services.

IBM’s Watson is a cognitive computing system capable of analysing types of data that were previously difficult to categorise. Watson’s ‘machine vision’, for example, enables it to recognise the content of a video, like a human would.

“Seventy-eight per cent of internet traffic is video content. Before artificial intelligence existed in a way that could be scaled across that volume of data, we weren’t able to get insight about what people were watching online and how they were relating to that content,” says Wall.

Another of Watson’s functions is ‘natural language processing’: the ability to infer not only the meaning of words but also their context in a sentence and, thus, the meaning of an entire language. Along with the system’s ability to crunch other background data, “we can detect what the content is, the context surrounding the interaction and then the meaning to individuals. This allows us to infer details about personalities way beyond traditional sentiment analysis”, says Wall.

The benefits for communications professionals are thrilling. US social media consultancy Influential uses a personality insight function of Watson to match social media influencers and brands for comms campaigns. Watson crunches the last 22,000 words that any influencer has put on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and uses them to identify 52 characteristics, drawn from the long-standing psychology theory of the Big Five personality traits. The presence of each characteristic is ranked from one to 100. Brands are ranked on the same traits and their compatibility with specific social media influencers is highlighted through correlations.

“Previously, we were able to recruit appropriate influencers through demographics and topic relevance, but, by using Watson’s natural language processing to identify behavioural insights, we can detect deeper connections between brands and influencers and achieve greater effectiveness,” says Chris Detert, president of marketing at Influential.

In September 2016, Influential was enlisted by the UN for the second consecutive year to generate engagement with the hashtag #HugForPeace, while promoting the International Day of Peace (21 September). Influential created a site where users uploaded images of themselves hugging others. Then it enlisted influencers with traits of altruism, self-transcendence, emotionality and dutifulness to push the hashtag, figuring their followers would be likely to display altruistic behaviours too. The posts led to 50,000 engagements and reached 40.6 million people.


But there are potential legal obstacles to the application of data-driven insights. From 2018, the EU General Data Protection Regulation will call for individuals to explicitly consent to the retention of the data that is stored about them and allow them to request its removal. Non-compliant companies will be fined €20m or 4% of global turnover.

“There’s a lot of work ahead of us to make sure we comply with the new laws,” says Wall. “There’s still a huge amount of behavioural insight to be gained from data, but we would need to remove personally identifiable data points so that we can aggregate it or understand it in an anonymised fashion.”

Wall believes the future of comms will move us beyond an era of segmentation towards messages that are more tailored than ever before. “Behavioural insight is about helping humans to have a better understanding of the world,” he says. “It has the power to move us towards a market of one.”

In the future, PR professionals could be running communications campaigns that deliver personalised messages, taking into account individual interests, personality traits, the most receptive time for delivery, and mood. That’s if we haven’t been replaced by robots.

The one-size-fits-all press release is beginning to feel very old-fashioned.

P.S Don’t forget your ethics

A view from nudge creator, Harvard Professor Cass R Sunstein

In daily life, a GPS device is a prime example of a nudge. It does nothing to diminish our freedom of choice, but helps us get where we want to go. Nudges make life easier to navigate.

In this spirit, prominent nudges include energy-efficiency labels and graphic warnings about the risks of smoking. This kind of nudge improves people’s lives, so it’s no wonder governments and public-spirited companies have given them a place in their toolbox.

As nudges allow people to go their own way, they raise less serious problems than mandates and bans. But they face four ethical constraints.

Firstly, and most importantly, they must be consistent with the values and interests of those they affect. If people are nudged to eat unhealthy goods or waste their money, something has gone badly wrong.

Secondly, they must be rooted in legitimate purposes. An elected official should not nudge people to discriminate by religion or race. Thirdly, they must be open to public scrutiny. Officials should never hide what they are doing.

Finally, nudges should not be deceptive: a GPS device does not manipulate anyone. As institutions seek to steer behaviour and respect choice, nudges will have growing appeal.

A version of this article was originally published in Influence magazine, Q1 2017.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia

  1. What an interesting article. Behavioural theory is already being used by strategic communications experts to help bridge the gap between audience insight and content. The ethics of its use, especially when you look at the organisations that are investing in it, really do need to be properly examined. So its fine, if Government wants to use to improve our health outcomes, but not so fine if they want to win an election.

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