Tag Archives: Public relations

Nudge: How behavioural psychology is being increasingly used in PR

One of the main reasons why I like PR is because I love psychology. PR is very much about knowing how people think and feel and anticipating how they will react to different things. Arguably, PR is pure psychology with a scent of creativity.


So much so that, I was surprised to learn that the UK Cabinet launched a separate government unit in 2010, dedicated to “find innovative ways of changing public behaviour” using insights from behavioural psychology. The Behavioural Insights Team or ‘Nudge Unit’ took its nickname from a 2008 book Nudge by academics Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. Using ‘Nudge’, £300m could be saved from the taxpayer money thanks to the positive influence to areas like public health, the government claims.

There are two types of behaviour change. One is cognitive when the choices are rationally considered – this is how public policy has traditionally approached people. The other one is based on the context model where context and environment have a significant effect on choice outcomes and therefore it is less rational and more instinctive, automatic. The nudge method utilises the latter model.

According to a discussion document released by the Nudge unit the most robust effects that impact behaviour is covered by the acronym MINDSPACE.

mindspace acronym

So for example changing the way choices are presented can significantly change the outcome. According to the ‘Default’ effect, people tend to choose the option that is set by default. For example, concerning the low take-up of employer-based pension schemes the Commission pointed out that providing information and generic advice about the options did not really have an impact. They said in 2003 an estimated 4.6 million employees had not joined employer based pension schemes even if they had had access to it – because opting-in was not the default option. Making opting into the pension schemes the default option significantly raised take-up.


Another notable example for that emotional nudges are more efficient than rational ones is OgilvyOne’s Crimestopper campaign. It is based on Loewenstein’s theory that people can be either in ‘hot state’ where they are affected by their emotions or in ‘cold state’ where they are thinking rationally. The theory goes that when we are in any of these states we fail to predict how we would behave in the opposite. So when it comes to pickpocketing, we would be in an emotional state if our smartphone was stolen from our bag. However, most of the campaigns or signs raising awareness of pickpocketers have tried to convince us rationally to take care of our belongings. OgilvyOne put people in an emotional state to be more receptive to their anti-pickpocketing messages. In the frame of the #putpocket campaign, they employed ex-pickpocketers to put wallet or smartphone-shaped cardboards into people’s bags. So when a person realised that something had been put in their pocket, they felt how vulnerable they were to pickpocketers and how easy it is to interfere with their belongings. Watch the fun and thought-provoking video about the campaign!

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Somerset flooding: how it washes away reputations

We have to remember that reputations are won or lost in a crisis”, said once  American Express CEO Ken Chenault. This is also why it is extremely important to react quickly, sparing not even a minute when a crisis breaks. This is one of the most important principles of crisis management, states Doorley and Garcia in their 2011 book Reputation Management.

The now on-going case of unfortunate flooding in England and the Environment Agency might be a great example to show the reputation of an organisation “is determined less by the severity of the crisis – the underlying event – than by the timeliness and quality of its response to the crisis” (Doorley & Garcia, p. 307).

uk flood

Today Lord Smith, Environment Agency chairman, paid visit to the most affected area, the Somerset Levels, first time since the area was slipped under water more than a month ago. He was not welcome. He received harsh criticism that made leading headlines in the British media. Local farmers refused to answer reporters of what they think of Lord Smith because “it would be inappropriate to say in front of the camera”. Local Conservative MP Ian Liddell-Grainger called him a ’coward’ and said: “I will tell him what I bloody well think of him – he should go, he should walk…This little git has never even been on the telephone to me. When I find out where he is, I will give it to him.” Journalists and locals present at the visit suggested he should have resigned for mismanagement of the flooding crisis.

So why is this extremely harsh criticism? From a crisis management perspective, It could be a good move that Lord Smith went to the Somerset Levels to show care and to reassure locals that the situation is in control and to ensure residents everything possible was done to tackle the crisis. However, the problem is clear. He absolutely missed one of the two basic principles: timeliness. And so the incident-driven crisis developed into an issue-driven one.

The Somerset Levels are under water since late last year. Since then local residents and local authorities (including MP Ian Liddell-Grainger) got exhausted by the series of flood surges and had time to identify the Environment Agency and notably its chairman as the scapegoat for the extensive flooding. They feel “let alone” by Lord Smith who worked mainly behind the scenes since floodings started.

Public opinion seems to be that the Environment Agency failed to dredge the rivers and that caused water levels to rise (despite independent experts state that dredging the rivers hadn’t had a considerable effect because we are talking about a too huge amount of water). No proper communications effort was made from the Environment Agency or Lord Smith to stop this view spread. And voila! For now it escalated to a stage that anything Lord Smith says is regarded as wrong by the public and they want him to resign.

My anticipation is that it is unlikely he will be able to turn back time. We have to remember that reputations are won or lost in a crisis…

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PR evaluation is killing PR

On Mondays and Tuesdays I am an ambitious PR intern at Terrence Higgins Trust, Europe biggest HIV and sexual health charity. On a sidenote, they are an extremely nice bunch of people and they are very passionate about their job and that makes them very good at what they are doing.

At the moment I have two main regular tasks. One is doing internal communications. Every morning (or afternoon – depending on how it gets ready) an internal email goes out to employers including the day’s main news relevant to the charity , THT’s coverage in the media and internal news. A big part of this involves me sitting there for hours reading national newspapers and looking for relevant content and compressing each story into a sentence for the email – when my fingers are completely black of ink, I know I am ready. I actually really enjoy it! My tutors at Westminster Uni keep saying that we will have to bring the world into the company, so we really have to know what’s going on . By skimming through the papers for relevant content, you get an idea that what’s going on and then you read more closely what might be relevant so you are also fully informed of that. Then you bring all that into the company, by sending out an extract of the world. It works! This is not the point of my blog post by the way; I just wrote it down because before my internship I remember asking one of my teachers how PR people monitor the press. I couldn’t believe that there is someone actually sitting there going through all the papers. Well, there is.

My second main task is to help with media evaluations. By media evaluation I mean evaluating the amount of coverage of THT in any media every day. They have to do daily reports of in what medium (+type of medium: platform as well as topic), how many mentions of THT had, what the mention was about and whether it contained a quote from someone from THT. They have to keep track of each little mention in two separate documents in different categories of whether the coverage was proactive or reactive. Then they also have to report the reach of each mention – how many people could have read/seen/heard it if all the consumers of the medium would have recognised the mention. Then there are monthly reports of how many mentions could reach how many people and so on, as written above, and then do graphics. And then they have to report reach and participation of social media. On the bright side, thanks to all this I started to make friends with my old enemy, Excel.

What is all this administration good for? Is it good for anything?
As far as I am concerned, they really do not show a real picture of the impact of the Press office’s work. By counting mentions, we get no idea about the quality of reach. Starting with who knows how many people have really seen it/heard it, continuing with who knows whether it made any impact provided someone realised it, finishing with who knows whether those people are the right people (the target audience). It just does not make sense to equal a whole page Guardian article about Terrence Higgins Trust with a line “you can get help from THT” having a type size of 6 on the bottom of a niche magazine. So why is it important to count the mentions then?

It’s probably because board rooms are still sceptical about the value of PR and practitioners have to prove them somehow that it has a game-changer impact of what they are doing. PR still hasn’t got the taken-for-granted legacy from company leaders. So practioners are obliged to produce fancy charts and tables that show growth and that how many million people could hear about the company that month, even if it doesn’t make too much sense and my former TOK teachers would probably kill themselves seeing it (TOK = Theory of Knowledge, a core subject in the International Baccalaureate program I attended and it’s all about questioning and critical thinking; one of the biggest lessons is not to believe to statistics because they can be manipulated endlessly).

The point is: if I have spent all those hours with, say, thinking up a stunt that really surpises commuters on the way home from work, would have probably make a much bigger impact than counting mentions. Of course, it is important to monitor coverage, but maybe it is not neccesary to translate it into numbers? This is something those in the right position should give a thought to.

Beautiful statistics

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It all starts with a man who is bald

I have to be honest with you. I don’t like bald men. Where I am coming from (Hungary), bald men are associated with having sports cars, finger-wide gold necklaces, blond Barbie girlfriends and they are all empty-headed jerks. This is utterly prejudicial but frequently true.

So when Colin Byrne, CEO of Weber Shandwick, made his way onto the podium at the University of Westminster to lecture budding PR students (including me) on how diversity and challenging the status quo is/should be/will be in the heart of PR, my self whispered an *ouch!* inside reflecting on the shining boldness.

In 3 minutes I was drinking his words, I wanted to be him and I wanted to touch him in the hope of getting some PR genius-ity landed on my hands. Okay, maybe I didn’t want to touch him, but you get how I felt. He is everything what you would not expect from a bald man. He is cool. He makes PR cool. He makes baldness cool. He makes me cool studying PR. Maybe I go bald.

Seriously, I needed this. Previously I studied Film & Media with Journalism at the University of Stirling and I had brilliant teachers who planted in me the seeds of praising the Fourth Estate. I won’t bore you too much what that is; in a nutshell journalists operate as watchdogs over the powerful/rich to prevent them exploiting their position. It’s the journalists’ responsibility to get rid of bullshit and let people know about the truth. And so, in many of my journalist lecturers’ interpretation PR equals bullshit. PR has the power to manipulate and influence, so journalists have to guard society from those mean PR practitioners. This is of course a very bald account of the idea and it’s arguable (A LOT). Anyway, based on this sentiment which was deeply planted in me in Stirling, I was struggling to justify to myself morally why on earth I am attending a postgraduate course in PR.

Colin Byrne answered my question. PR is not necessarily about writing press releases, emailing and making calls to journalists in the hope of being able to suck up to them effectively enough to get your message across (or it shouldn’t be). It can also be about being creative, going insane in your head, brainstorming like you are completely out of your mind and so challenge the status quo. Instead of sitting down in front of your screen and type a release, go and place 2000 sunflowers in the City and put lights on the London Eye reflecting the mood of the nation. And that’s not arguable: that’s baldly cool.


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