If you ask a PR practitioner why they got into the business, chances are that "change" will figure highly in their answers. The reality, though, can be starkly different – with many campaigns failing to bring about true change.
Ali Gee, deputy chief executive and senior partner at FleishmanHillard Fishburn, took to the stage at PR360 to warn of the Seven Sins of Change and outline the solutions.
The first sin is being too timid to ask the client the single most important question about the job.
"If all our briefs could be boiled down into one question we would all be much more sane," Gee said.
"When a client’s brief lands, there’s invariably an opportunity to ask questions on a call. You spend that time unpicking it and trying to interpret what they’ve said they want," said Gee. "But what you don’t do is ask them the single most important question – what’s the change you want to see?"
Too often the same assumptions are made about what is needed to fulfil a campaign objective. Taking an anti-obesity brief as an example, it’s easy to assume that the answer is to focus on ‘five a day’ messaging, calorie reduction or inspiring exercise stories. But this has been done before and obesity is still on the rise.
If a reduction in obesity is the change we need to see, Gee believes the answer is "to find out what simple ask of our audience will really make the difference". She cites an example celebrated by two behavioural change experts, Chip and Dan Heath: scientists at the University of West Virginia realised they could dramatically reduce the public’s calorific intake – and make a sustainable reduction in obesity in the State – by encouraging people to simply switch from full fat to skimmed milk.
"Greed usually rears its ugly head in the form of unrealistic campaign objectives," Gee said. "Behaviour change is hard. It doesn’t happen over-night and asking for double digit shifts in entrenched attitudes and behaviours from a campaign that only lasts months may be naive."
Gee highlighted an example of a client seeking a five per cent change in behaviour to justify the campaign’s spend to his board – even though realistically standing still would have been an achievement because of antipathy in the media on the particular subject in question.
Despite the PR industry’s claims that campaigns are founded on "deep data and a clear understanding of the consumer and trends" too often there is a fundamental fallacy – placing too much emphasis on the way people behave, and not questioning why they behave in such a manner.
"Without a real insight we can never have a credible strategy or change behaviour," said Gee.
"Change does not happen easily, maintaining the status quo is much simpler," Gee pointed out. "Our job is to motivate people and make sure the ‘ask’ is easy."
To demonstrate her point, Gee highlighted how coffee shop customers are more likely to collect stamps on a ten-stamp loyalty card when two had already been filled in by the shop, rather than collect stamps on a card that had eight spaces on it, but none pre-filled.
"It feels as though they’re already making progress," she explained.
Arrogance, confidence, pride. This is the downfall of some PR practitioners. A Cannes award or an endorsement from the editor of Vogue is all well and good, but if the message is not received by the target customer and, crucially, then acted on, it’s all in vain.
"As George Bernard Shaw said, the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion it has taken place," Gee said.
7. Finger Licking
Waving a finger in the air in lieu of measurement is the deadliest sin of all in Gee's eyes.
"If you are not measuring it you are not able to prove you have delivered real change," she concluded. "The sin we are guiltiest of is the one that is most unexciting of all, which is we are not measuring our work and we all know that."