What charity PR can learn from behavioural science

I recently read a fascinating piece from The Marketing Society that identified insights from behavioural science to increase charitable giving. As a former charity PR myself, I started thinking about how similar tactics could be used to boost a charity’s media coverage.

The article highlighted five key insights, which I’ve paraphrased below with my take on how this relates to PR…


The insight: Loosely summarised, this is about deferring donation so we feel the financial pain less sharply in the present, e.g. encouraging people to start donating when they get their next pay rise.

The PR tactic: This is a tricky one. The point of a news story is that it is relevant now. However, applying this principle to media engagement could pay dividends. Developing relationships with the media on an ongoing basis, rather than waiting until your big story hits is a wise time investment. You may not be able to offer them exactly what they are after now but you can start seeding the big campaigns you’ve got coming up over the rest of the year so that when the story hits they are primed to donate their pages to your cause.


The insight: Social norms can be used to trigger people into translating their desires into action, e.g. talking about the number of people who already leave a legacy in their Will helps normalise this behaviour, making it more likely that people will replicate it.

The PR tactic:  Shouting about the number of supporters backing a campaign and highlighting any high profile or celebrity supporters with the media follows this principle and also adds a nice point of engagement for the press. A pledge or petition can be a good way to display the support already garnered and provides a good PR-able focus for a campaign.


The insight: Asking for a large donation can put people under pressure – they feel a smaller donation wouldn’t match up to expectations, so don’t donate at all. One experiment suggests that asking people to make a donation and adding the phrase “every penny helps” resulted in more donations without a decrease in the total amount given.

The PR tactic: Pushing for a front page feature may not always be the best approach. Letting the journalist know that even a link to the website would be hugely helpful takes the pressure of them (after all most journalists are subject to the whims of their editors). It also emphasises that you are interested in helping them work up their angle rather than imposing your own.  It may be that you are pleasantly surprised by the number of your messages that still appear in print. 


The insight: Match giving, where a company or organisation agrees to match or better your donation can motivate people to give.

The PR tactic: This is one way of crossing the difficult to navigate charity / private sector divide. Getting a corporation to match donations for a campaign could result in column inches for both parties with the added benefit of a corporate press team to lend their support. A braver option is to approach a media title and see if they’d be willing to do something similar. Media partnerships can be massively beneficial when it comes to raising money or awareness so it’s worth taking a punt.


The insight: Websites such as JustGiving make a point of displaying not only the total amount of money raised so far, but also how this equates to the desired target in percentage terms. In other words, the end goal and the donor’s part in achieving this are made very clear.

The PR tactic: This can be replicated through PR by having a fundraising target in mind for a campaign and talking to the press about it – using a totaliser on the website as a visual aid. Many charities are reticent to do this because they don’t want to see a target splashed over the pages of a paper if there is any chance that it won’t be met. I’d counter this by suggesting that a) journalists like specifics, b) you are simply sharing your aspirations not making a promise and c) it’s a rare journalist who would do a negative follow up story if a target hasn’t quite been met.