2017 is nearly in the rearview mirror. Communications professionals resolving to be better counselors for their clients in the new year have no shortage of material to draw from: wiser CEO reputation advice from the spectacular rise and ignominious fall of Uber’s Travis Kalanick; tighter crisis preparedness in the wake of the Equifax breach; and the smarter digital rules of engagement with the rise of fake news, toxic trolling, and Twitter fails.
While all these things are important, communications professionals are missing something big if they fail to recognize the importance of another news making event in 2017: University of Chicago economist Richard Thaler winning a Nobel Prize for his work in behavioral economics.
Anyone interested in burnishing their trusted advisor credentials should take note; few professions cry out more for the need to understand and motivate human behavior through framing ideas than public relations. While they have existed separately for the most part, public relations needs behavioral economics like peanut butter needed jelly.
"Behavioral economics" is a dressed up moniker for the study of the most human of actions: we make bad decisions—so often in fact that they are predictable. When given options, we will more often make the easiest choice over the wisest. Hence, a burger and fries will beat the salad bowl four out of five times. To address this deficiency, behavioral economists believe, people need to be "nudged" toward doing the right thing for themselves.
Credible studies with compelling real-world outcomes abound. More employees participate in 401(k) plans through automatic enrollment; some governments report increased tax collections through peer-based messaging; and more people quitting smoking through a give-and-take system of financial incentives have been realized through the application of behavioral economics.
While intriguing, some may wonder what the application is to the public relations industry. I say there’s plenty.
Take for instance the biggest controversy that rocked the workplace in 2017: sexual harassment. A cross-cultural behavioral economics study in 2016 found that moral deviance of subjects was more likely if they lived in more corrupt societies. Put simply: people bend the rules through a mentality of "It’s okay! Everybody does it around here." Could this finding be a diagnosis of the pattern of workplace behavior that calcified human resources policies were supposed to police and prevent? Or explain the incredible energy behind the #MeToo tsunami sweeping the nation? They are questions worth exploring, especially given the mushrooming litigation, regulatory action, and reputational damage that now dog workplace as a result of corporate stasis.
There’s a crucial role for behavioral economics to play with client relations, too. It’s no surprise that the 24-hour news cycle, unforgiving market volatility, and an internet that pounces with a mouse click’s notice make for a skittish client. For practitioners looking for ways to demonstrate value in this kind of environment, scientific rigor and behavioral evidence rooted in common sense help make risk-taking – like marketing, advocacy, change, and apology – more calculated and more actionable.
Behavioral economics is not without its critics — it’s a hot field with faddish insights, Nobel Prizes notwithstanding, some say. All the same, there is a long and underappreciated relationship between human communication and behavioral psychology. The father of public relations, Edward Bernays, was well known for using behavioral principles in his work thanks in part to his famous uncle, Sigmund Freud. What’s more is that clients are paying attention to it. And those leading, not lagging, with what has clients’ attention will survive and prosper.
In the end, delivering a service, however impeccably, won’t be enough for clients increasingly looking for consultants and advisers who can demonstrate value. What’s the real value of a service if it helps a client overcome a crisis of workplace sexual harassment or misconduct but does not identify, understand, and correct the conditions that gave rise to the wrongdoings so a client can say with credibility "this won’t happen again"?
"Whether they know it or not, clients want to be led," a mentor once told me. "If you can create that kind of relationship, you won’t just have a satisfied client, you will have a loyal client."
In a data-driven world where hard evidence eats gut instinct for breakfast, helping clients better understand the behaviors of their own clients or customers and make better decisions based on the behaviors of their own organizations may be the surest path to client loyalty. Not a bad New Year’s resolution to keep.
Chris Varones is founder and principal of Aesop Communications Group.