Inserting ‘Behavior Design’ into Your PR Effort

Liz Guthridge
Liz Guthridge

PR professionals always are concerned with boosting their value to a company and driving bottom-line results. Today, much conversation in PR revolves around converting readers into customers so they can add to the bottom line rather than just receive a message. In addition PR is being asked to do something else: Design experiences that will induce stakeholders to take action. More specifically, PR is expected to help stakeholders behave in ways that will reach outcomes the CEO wants.

Tactics may range from helping employees collaborate on a new project to recruiting community members to serve as advocates to improve the company’s reputation. As a result, PR is expanding the services and value it delivers to an organization.

As PR interacts more with stakeholders directly, it is increasingly providing support and information and encouraging them to act. When a stakeholder’s experience is positive, chances are that he or she will be hooked and more committed to getting involved with the organization.


User experiences designed to change behavior often are concentrated in consumer-oriented markets.

Take healthcare, where medical professionals help patients adopt changes in diet, exercise and stress levels to improve their health and wellbeing.

For most sectors, though, the field known as behavior design is a relatively new discipline. No business function has emerged to apply the principles of behavior design—as formulated by the founder of the field Dr. BJ Fogg—to lead the charge to help stakeholders (employees, partners, investors, vendors) change their behavior in a systematic way.

Yet, a growing number of CEOs are seeking behavior change. This vacuum represents an enormous opportunity for communicators.

PR pros have an important skill necessary for the practice of behavior design: their ability to communicate effectively, attract individuals’ attention and get them to focus on a specific message.

To spur people into action, behavior design mixes compelling messaging with psychology and system-design thinking.


Attention and awareness aren’t enough to spur action, however. When urged to act, humans generally default to doing nothing because they are “mental coach potatoes,” says UCLA psychology professor Dr. Matthew D. Lieberman.

As he explains in his 2013 book, “Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect,” (Crown) “If there’s a way to avoid exerting effort, [humans] almost always do.”

Against so much resistance you’ve got to get stakeholders to act in a systematic way, especially if you want them to repeat the behavior.

Based on the Fogg Behavior Model, you need to ensure that three elements converge simultaneously: motivation, ability and a trigger.

If any of these three elements is missing, a new behavior can’t form and a message won’t get across. The result is you have thrown good money after bad.

To get started designing a behavior change, ask these key questions:

1. What’s the win? What is the specific, well-defined action you want people to take? And is it a one-time action or a behavior for a period of time?

For example, my win is to get you to read—just once—this article to become more aware of behavior design and its power.

Your win may be to find employees who will serve as amateur videographers to tell a number of your company’s stories in a real, authentic manner on the firm’s YouTube channel.

2. What motivation do individuals require before they will act? Do they need to feel pleasure or pain; hope or fear; or social acceptance or rejection? These three core motivators influence people the most concerning behavior change, Fogg says. Besides assessing which motivator will stimulate them, consider whether they need a nudge or a lot more influencing.

3. How much ability do individuals need? Once you have their attention, their awareness and their consideration, what else do they need to act? Time? Money? Physical or mental energy? Peer pressure? If so, how much? Does the action require them to do something familiar, different or totally new?

4. How easy is the first step? This is where most behavior change breaks down. It’s hard for people to make the effort. As we said above, we’re couch potatoes at heart.

Just because people have the will (motivation) and skill (ability), they won’t get off the couch and get over the hill—especially if they perceive the knoll to be a mountain that’s looming in their way.

Instead, they need a smooth path. How can you simplify the steps? And what triggers—or prompts—can you provide, such as alerts, lifelines and other support rooted in communications?

5. What’s the reward? This makes people feel good about their action, which is especially important if you want them to continue the behavior, as the brain will start rewiring itself after repeated behavior.

The prize can be minimal—pure recognition—especially if you make the action “simple, social and fun” (as Fogg recommends). However, if you are requesting individuals to do something just once, such as complete a form, you usually can get higher participation by providing an incentive.

In a sense, behavior design’s goal of getting people to take action or change their thinking to reach a desired outcome has long been PR’s endgame. It stands to reason that using the concepts and approaches of behavior design can enhance your PR effort, make it more systematic and elevate your standing as a PR professional.


Liz Guthridge is the managing director of Connect Consulting Group. She can be reached at

 This article originally appeared in the January 19, 2015 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.

  • Paul Rogers

    Liz great article. As we communicators start to partner more with PR for engagement (employee and candidate) your five questions are a nice way to frame the goals and desired outcomes.