Are people rational? The use of the nudge technique in PR

No one likes to be forced to do things. The bans often cause the opposite effect and the overwhelming amount of rules make us want to break them. But what if our behaviour could be subtly influenced and guided in the certain direction without our knowledge? As explained in the Ketchum blog post by Stephen Waddington, “Nudge theory is a technique developed in behavioural science and psychology that asserts small indirect suggestions can have a huge change and positive effect on outcomes.” The effectiveness of nudges led to the development of behavioural marketing and the use of nudges by governments and the private sector. It is clear that nudges work, so how could they be used in PR? And can we still call it PR if we use something which is not readily visible and transparent?

Illustration by Bill Butcher Source:

Illustration by Bill Butcher

Ogilvy Public Relations, a global PR company with a 25 year history, prides itself on “operating at the intersection of influencer management, behavior change and narrative to create, improving and amplifying brand favorability and reputation.” The company established #ogilvychange practice, which “combines the cognitive psychology and behavioural economics with the communication expertise”. Through the case studies presented on their dedicated website we can find out how they practically use the concept of nudges. One of the examples shows the power of subconsciousness in choosing between the healthy breakfast (fruits) and muffins under different influences, like the Caribbean music or the position of the food. Another case study demonstrates the impact of artistic experiment on anti-social behaviour.

According to The Guardian, there are 5 major advantages of nudges.

1. Nudges reduce the costs of one-size-fits-all solutions.

2. If official nudges are based on mistakes, the damage is far less severe than in the case of bans.

3. It is a major safeguard that people can go their own way in case of dishonest motivations of organizations.

4. It doesn’t deprive people of the ability to choose and make their own decisions.

5. It respects freedom of choice that a government or any other organization should honour.

Nevertheless, the question about the use of nudges in Public Relations remains open. If PR is supposed to be a two-way communication based on the trust and transparency, how could we explain the use of behavioural science which is not disclosed to people? Doesn’t it bring PR closer to the manipulation rather than communications? John Kenny, who was interviewed by the authors of the Nudge Blog, admits that “behavioral economics in fact helps marketers understand better what the best creatives have always understood, albeit unwittingly: That people are not rational.” According to the advertising agency Cogent Elliot, “This means we often act and behave from habit rather in what is in our best interests; we are strongly influenced by what others do and say; and because we are lazy we often go with the default.” Therefore, knowing behavioral economic principles can help to create a successful PR campaign, but it does not necessarily mean that building it on nudges will be ethically correct.


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