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Nudge the people, a social housing perspective

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Projects, by their very nature are about change.Changing stuff is often seen as the hard part but in fact it is changing behaviour that presents the biggest challenge.This is as much the case in the public sector as anywhere.

Barack Obamas communications team includes a group called the Consortium of Behavioural Scientists (COBS). David Cameron established the Behavioural Change Insights Team as part of the coalition government, also known as the nudge unit.

Society has changed. Gone are the days when we would obediently walk to the post office to cash our benefits or drink more milk if an authority told us to.

We are now inundated with information and advice daily, both online and offline. The consumer has evolved and changing the behaviour of society now requires much more than a simple poster.

If you work in PR for a public sector organisation like the NHS or a housing association, you will probably understand this struggle more than most. As a communications professional currently working in social housing myself, I was keen to unravel what this all means for the average practitioner.
So I undertook some research as part of a public relations diploma qualification I was taking. I set out to explore the role of persuasion in our modern world, specifically its relevance and use for social marketing or public information campaigns. This research surveyed practitioners working in social housing and revealed that 91% were required to manage behavioural change campaigns and that the majority considered this a regular part of their job role.

Ranking top were campaigns about money management and saving energy. Most people also felt that they experienced difficulties when managing behavioural change campaigns, with resourcing and internal politics being the biggest issues.

So what if we are telling people to pay rent on time or to smoke less - how can public sector campaigns compete with everything else in our modern world?

The answer, it seems, could be to harness human psychology and social science to our advantage. Obamas campaign to save energy in the home enjoyed unprecedented success by showing people the energy bills of neighbours. This along with other campaign tactics exploited the concept of social pressure and Cialdinis social proof principle, playing on the fact that we instinctively refer to others when forming our own behaviours.
Despite the evidence that using human psychology to persuade can deliver improved results, it is an area of PR that has been neglected.

Social science started to develop thinking around persuasion at the beginning of the 20th century and it was quickly exploited by PR professionals including the likes of Edward Bernays. Its use during the world wars, notably Nazi Germany, tarnished the reputation of persuasion and created negative links with propaganda.

As the public relations profession has grown, persuasion has remained a controversial area. Academics have debated its role for the best part of the last century, particularly in relation to ethical boundaries.

Most PR text books avoid the subject entirely and very few explore persuasion in any real detail, including the ubiquitous Excellence Theory from Grunig and Hunt. This has been the source of much debate given that their guidance positions persuasion in the Press Agentry model which is considered the less desirable way of working.

The majority of contemporary thinking still sits within the field of social science, which is perhaps why specialists in psychology are being brought into communications teams.

So could Obama and Camerons interest in the science of persuading be leading a renaissance? The birth of the term nudge and its use to describe the burgeoning variety of theories and ideas about persuasion could be testament to this.

My research with practitioners working in social housing revealed an appetite and interest in developing skills in this area. Nearly half of the participants believed they had used nudge techniques, but interestingly most felt their understanding was basic and that they would benefit from learning more.

Is it time to move on from the stigma and controversy that surrounded persuasion in the 20th century, and to look at its use in our modern environment with fresh eyes.

Communicators, particularly those in the public sector, need to embrace this growing area of expertise, develop new skills and enter into open discussion about the realities of using persuasive psychology.

This will not only help the development of the profession, but will leave practitioners in a better position to tease out the challenges that they face by enabling them to be more ethical, strategic and cost effective when managing change campaigns.

If you work in project communication, get to grips with nudging and think differently. It could make your job easier and your communications smarter.


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  1. Sophie Harper
    Sophie Harper 15 January 2015, 09:47 AM

    The majority of thinking accepts that it is a difficult to define exactly how you can make sure you are using persuasion for good.My suggestion for upholding the highest standards of ethical professionalism in respect of persuasive communications and PR, would be to ensure that comms planning is properly used within an organisation. If strong planning processes are in place ethical questions should be raised and ironed out as part of this, before agreeing on tactics.

  2. Tim Lyons
    Tim Lyons 13 January 2015, 11:21 PM

     Certainly a proficient project leader would have skills of influencing  that may be called persuasion, but equally they must have similar and equal skills in deflecting influence that would damage a successful project's trajectory. It takes one to know one in other words! 

  3. Alastair Smart
    Alastair Smart 12 January 2015, 03:01 PM

    Leaders are expected to have, or acquire, expertise in human behaviour and psychology. Training and competency-building in persuasion is as important as any of the technical skills that a PM can develop – perhaps even more important. There is a grey area between persuasion and manipulation though, how can you be sure that you’re using the force for good?