Behavioural Insights: A Foundation for Professional Public Relations Practice

There’s no question that there is an aspiration for greater professionalism in public relations practice – given recent expression in the UK in an internal debate on strategy for the future development of the practice in the Chartered Institute of Public Relations.

Realising the aspiration will depend on confident mining of a body of knowledge, clarity regarding what it means to be professional in practice, and demonstrably high standards of practice.

Practitioners are essentially applied psychologists, in that they claim understanding of the ways people behave and how they may be influenced in relationships, through skilful use of communication.  They also make predictions regarding behaviour, suggesting to clients and employers that – if their advice is followed – changes in behaviour can be expected, changes in one way or another of benefit to clients and employers.

A solid foundation for public relations practice is to be found in the approach developed by behavioural economists working with government to apply behavioural insights to policy development and implementation.  Developed over the past ten years, by the Behavioural Insights Team in the UK – the Nudge Unit – and now many similar units elsewhere, the approach has been adopted around the world.  It has achieved striking results and needs closer attention from public relations practitioners – not least because in some of its applications it can remove the need for public relations advice and support.

Latest developments in the application of behavioural insights were aired at Behavioural Exchange, a conference organised annually since 2014 for this purpose, last week in London (www.bx2019.com). With over 1,000 participants from 65 countries, the conference programme proved – as in previous years – full of insights for public relations.

Conference commentary can be found on Twitter #bx2019 (or from @BenVerinder or @drjonwhite) but some highlights included:

  • Attention is turning to topics such as fake news, with experimental work being carried out to see if recipients of fake news can be ‘innoculated’ against its content and effects.
  • Some of our assumptions regarding the value of reports relating to behaviour – what people say about their behaviour, for example in surveys – need to be revisited. According to Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, an economist and New York Times writer, everybody lies in response to many direct questions (http://sethsd.com/everybodylies). A better understanding of the way people behave is available through analysis of data relating to internet searches.
  • People do not really know themselves, according to Nick Chater, a psychologist at the University of Warwick Business School. They draw on past experience, and make themselves up as they go along. His argument is that the mind is ‘flat’ with no depth, and perceptual limitations mean that we have only limited insight into what we regard as its contents. A more reliable guide to how people are likely to behave is to look at their past behaviour.
  • Our physical limitations have been stretched enormously over the past 300 or so years, but we have failed to stretch our cognitive abilities to the same extent. This from the head of the Centre for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University in the US, Dan Ariely, also the author of The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty.
  • Cass Sunstein, the co-author of Nudge, also talked about how willing people are to be honest. They are mainly unwilling to disclose their real views, opinions, unless in some way given permission. Once able to express themselves more directly, opinions spread rapidly and polarise. He used his discussion of change to show how Brexit, the #metoo movement and populism have allowed more extreme opinions to emerge, with effects that we are still trying to manage.
  • Most of the investment made in training is wasted because it does not lead to real change, according to Laszlo Bock, a former senior vice president for People Operations at Google

A session on preparation for professional practice in teaching talked of the need for practitioners who will look for guidance from the use of data and evidence to inform best practice to have a basic research literacy, a suggestion equally relevant to public relations practice. A number of studies of practitioners have found that their obsession with the need for effective means of measurement and evaluation is partly rooted in their lack of confidence in, and knowledge of, research techniques and the use of data.

En route to greater professionalism in practice, gaps in knowledge of the behavioural sciences and the use of behavioural insights will need to be addressed. Following the work of the behavioural economists will be part of this – material from this year’s conference will appear shortly on the conference website www.bx2019.com.

Photo features Dan Ariely, Director of Duke University’s Centre for Advanced Hindsight.

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