Updated Jan. 19 with link to news article on similar topic (below)
Public relations is often tasked with trying to influence behavior. Many of us work from experience to develop a plan that we believe will move the needle. We also use research, focus groups and the occasional fortune teller.
Yet, lately, it seems we are guessing wrong.
There are dynamics and influences that could provide us significant help that we're simply not discovering. A well developed plan will get upset or, worse, create some backlash. Understanding the "public" so we can create beneficial "relations" with them is getting more challenging.
Today, it seems, the answers to a successful strategy are popping up in unusual places. We need to rethink our original notions about what influences behavior.
Here is a case in point.
A recent NPR story highlighted a study that showed when gas prices drop, traffic fatalities go up. They study accurately pinpointed a specific number of deaths by every so many cents of decline at the pump. Gas prices were the only cause for the rise in fatalities.
Once you hear the reasons, it's a no-brainer to figure out how this applies to public relations.
Millions of dollars are spent annually on safe-driving campaigns. In high school, teachers and cops try to scare the hell out of us. We are given all sorts of information - in a very direct fashion - about safe driving. Some of us get traffic tickets for speeding, go to traffic school, then after a few months, start speeding again.
But as the study points out, scaring us doesn't cause us to drive safer - it's higher gas prices.
Why? When gas goes up, our behavior is focusing on "saving" gas. You accelerate slower and keep a steady pace because those things save gas. Those multiple trips we take when prices are lower are now combined into a single trip because we have to "save gas."
The "prompt" here is not information, but our pocketbook. The social conscious is wired toward financial, not personal safety or the safety of others...or that cop I just passed going 45 in a 25.
Granted, a percentage of the population will be influenced by a steady stream of information or graphic images. The masses, however, will change behavior because of price.
In California, we saw the influence of money and how it impacted behavior when it comes to saving water. In the first half of 2014, water agencies up and down the state were pleading with customers to conserve because of a very serious drought. However, it was not until the state water agency said it would begin fining people up to $500 a day for wasting water did California begin to see huge drops in water usage. The threat of a financial penalty "woke up" the masses to take action.
What does this mean for PR, branding and communications campaigns?
Overkill. Consumer behavior can be "conditioned" to tune out a message that has been told over and over in nearly the same fashion. "Yeah, yeah. I know I have to (save water) (replace my light bulbs with LED ones) (drive slower)."
An unlikely prompt. Focus groups and consumer research need to be turned on their head. We don't need to waste precious dollars asking variations of the same message, or a participant's "views" about a social issue. Look at their behavior for something totally unrelated to your cause or product and ask them the off-beat question. An probe of the indirect may reveal the motivating factor perfectly suited for your campaign.
It's not always comedy. Too often, we dive into pop culture to put an 'edge' to our campaigns, draw a laugh. We mistakenly believe this will help capture their attention and 'cut through the clutter' and 'noise' of all the information that surrounds us today. OK. So you got their attention. Now what?
Avoid the "ask." Historically, we've been told to make sure we have "an ask" to ensure consumers are prompted into action. Advertisers and marketers are still successful in making people "feel good" about a product because I, too, want to drive off into the wilderness in my Jeep or re-acquaint myself with a Reese's peanut butter cup. Behavior change through association with a positive, reinforcing images and concepts can be achieved in a public relations format.
The best channel. I came across a public utility representative, frustrated by a seemingly excellent communications plan to inform customers they were moving their office. For months, utility customers received notices in the mail, saw multiple signs posted in the lobby. The utility issued a news release, put a story in the city's quarterly magazine, took out full-page advertisements in the local newspaper. Still, hundreds of customers complained they never heard about the move and were upset about having to drive to a new location after seeing the "we've moved" sign at the old one. Was the utility showing up "where" customers would notice? Today, it's about showing up in unexpected places. In this case, the utility may have considered placing notices in local grocery shopping bags. We all need food. For some of us, that's a daily trip.
As we see from the gas price-fatality scenario, one doesn't need to seek an "ask" to secure behavior change.
We just need to tap into the human psyche a bit deeper.
Today, the LA Times published a report from "environmental economists" at UCLA about what motivates people to save energy. Again - not what we think it would be. Note, however, that the UCLA study is focused on a limited demographic. From my experience, these kinds of findings are usually difficult to extrapolate to the general population.