Behavioral science insights refer to a body of research aimed at better understanding how people make decisions and act on them. Launched by the Institute for Public Relations in March 2016, The Behavioral Insights Research Center (BIRC) offers the opportunity for public relations researchers and professionals to explore our societal role in the formation of public policy.

Under a recent U.S. presidential directive, behavioral science insights are to be used to design government policies to better serve the American people. Agencies are particularly encouraged to identify the ways information is presented to the public; how the public interprets and receives that information; and the impacts on behavioral and policy outcomes.

In a tradition of 60 years spent discovering “the science beneath the art of public relations,” the formation of BIRC represents another example of IPR’s insightful leadership. (Happy Birthday, IPR!) The future of public relations is bright with behavioral science insights research.

Here I pose some observations about where we’ll see behavioral science insights emerging in public relations, as well as some potential hurdles that we’ll need to address along the way.

Re-defining Disciplinary Origins

Underpinned by the ideas of sociology and economics, public relations evolved as a strategic communication discipline. Many histories tell us that public relations grew as a discipline of specific events executed by “the great men” of railroad and oil companies –whose goals were all too often the subversion of journalists (L’Etang, 2016; Watson, 2014). Most public relations history takes a corporate-centric approach, neglecting the role of activists who were executing public relations techniques as issues management more than a quarter-century beforehand (Coombs & Holladay, 2012).

A re-examination of public relations’ origins through the lens of activist communication finds that we were a discipline founded upon influencing policy outcomes – whether at the organizational or government levels. The disciplinary origins of public relations are less likely that of the corporate “spin doctor,” but rather, that of the human rights activist.

A better identification of our beginnings allows for a better identification of our role as policy influencers. Through behavioral science insights, public relations has the opportunity to champion strategic communication, to re-define ourselves historically and contemporarily in a way that is, perhaps, better aligned with what we actually do and aspire to be.

Recognition and Grant Dollars

If we are revisiting our past, it’s an opportune time to also consider our future. Today, public relations professionals should rise to meet the challenge of how we define behavioral insights for communication strategy and outcomes. If “public relations” is a dirty word, now is the time to redefine it. I believe we’ve already seen the emergence of this trend through the recent embrace of public diplomacy, public affairs, and public communication as disciplinary functions.

As government grant money and national recognition become available for behavioral communication (U.S. Presidential Order 13707), opportunists will jump at the chance to apply the broad “strategic communication” label to their work. If strategic communication is everything, then it is nothing. If public relations is strategic communication, then let’s ensure our important and especially relevant work is represented.

Societal Role of Strategic Communicators

A worthy area to start is in the ways we educate our students and the emphases we place on our research. Our research and teaching needs to better focus on the policy-level and societal-level outcomes within which we participate. If we move down a focal path of graduating entry-level tacticians, our discipline is positioned exactly where others may have mistakenly defined us: as subverters of journalists, and as subordinate to other academic fields. In a resource-limited world, demonstrating our capacity for societal-level outcomes is the new frontier.

Multidisciplinary skills should be emphasized in curriculum. Educators should re-route curriculum with a greater emphasis on our roots in sociology and business, emphasizing strategic-level critical thinking and higher-order competencies. Tactical skill sets are the building blocks for public relations, but an undergraduate education in public relations should not both begin and end this way. Behavioral science insights will inform strategy and tactics, but educators must give students the ability to embrace them.

Empirical Research & Questions of Policy

The behavioral science literature relies heavily on empiricism that gives way to policy recommendations. The evolution of research methods and data analysis techniques will become more important than ever for public relations researchers. Using evidence-backed (strategic) communication, public relations scholars and professionals are well positioned to advance societal outcomes.

The Behavioral Insights Research Center’s (BIRC) mission is to conduct research on the factors that influence attitude and behavioral change to enable effective communication. BIRC can help professionals understand how and why people think and behave the way they do in this ever-changing business environment.

  Melissa D. Dodd, Ph.D., APR, is an assistant professor at the University of Central Florida. She is also a research fellow for IPR’s Behavioral Insights Research Center. Follow her on Twitter @mellydodd.                                                                         


Coombs, W. T. & Holladay, S. J. (2012). Fringe public relations: How activism moves critical PR toward the mainstream. Public Relations Review, 38(5), 880-887.

L’Etang, J. (2016). History as a source of critique: Historicity and knowledge, societal change, activism and movements. In J. L’Etang, D. McKie, N. Snow, & J. Xifra (Eds.). The Routledge Handbook of Critical Public Relations (pp. 28-40).

Watson, T. (2014). Let’s get dangerous: A review of current scholarship in public relations history. Public Relations Review, 40(5), 874-877.

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
Follow on Twitter

Leave a Reply