by Ian Rumsby
November 22nd, 2012

Ask a group of public relations executives what they do for a living and the more articulate of the bunch will likely tell you that they’re storytellers. That’s cute, but it’s wrong. What they do is shape opinion. How they do it is, or might be, through storytelling.

However we might choose to couch it, the PR business is in the business of behavioural change. And that means we have to grasp the dynamics of emotional, cognitive and social influence on decision-making behaviour. It also means we have to accommodate structural change, engaging people who bring a very different perspective to communications problem solving.

So what’s fuelling this particular strain of business reinvention? After all, the PR industry seems to have been reinventing itself for a while now.

If digital was the agent provocateur that incentivised the PR industry to think differently about its place in the communications mix, then behavioural economics will be the catalyst for a reframed hiring policy.

The reason is relatively straightforward. Only when we understand behavioural drivers can we develop initiatives that are sufficiently robust and grounded in fact rather than being wholly reliant on the imagination of the creative few. And that puts a whole new perspective on who might be involved in the process, and why.

Such an evolution does not come without challenges. Populating a business with specialist functions is clumsy if the organisation does not accept the need for a cultural shift that accommodates a revised service landscape. Science and creativity are rarely happy bedfellows, which means the context for their collective use is pivotal.

In Australia, Weber Shandwick is tackling this head-on. Through the development of an ideation tool that leverages a science-based process with a creative-based outcome, we’ve established an ideation process (or what we used to call a brainstorm) that provokes a healthy tension between art and science. Because of it our thinking is more grounded, our ideas better placed and our approach far more streamlined.

There’s an inherent resistance to such an approach. That’s to be expected. Tell a team of creative PRs that you want to fuel their imagination with science and, at best, they’ll say something mildly offensive. It’s because we’ve long prided ourselves on being all things to all people — strategy planner, creative, finance manager, account handler and entrepreneur — all of the time.

So the biggest barrier to the effective adoption of behavioural economics in our industry, and with it a more scientific approach, is ourselves, not our clients. We might think that clients brief us to deliver great campaign ideas. But what they always need are great business solutions. We have to continually remind ourselves of that simple, but often illusive, fact. If behavioural economics is anything, it is the science of common sense.

Ian Rumsby is chairman at Weber Shandwick Australia and executive vice-president, strategic development at Weber Shandwick Asia Pacific

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