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You want me to change my behaviour? Get the message right

COVID-19 is foremost a health crisis but it is also an economic crisis. Governments, businesses, communities, and individuals will all need to find a path through the uncertainty because it will be part of our transition from acute outbreak to recovery, and then emergence into the new normal.

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23 November 2020
Sally Dorsett, David Schmidtchen & Jason Perelson

COVID-19 is foremost a health crisis but it is also an economic crisis. Governments, businesses, communities, and individuals will all need to find a path through the uncertainty because it will be part of our transition from acute outbreak to recovery, and then emergence into the new normal.

In each stage we will need to establish new routines and new patterns. Clear, concise, and meaningful messaging and communication that convinces and persuades you and I to behave differently is critical to our shared success.

However, particularly in crisis, it is often the case that in designing and delivering strategy we rarely consider the need to change behaviour. We tend to lead with ‘facts’, instructions, and direction.  This is necessary but alone it is not enough. Facts alone are not convincing and rarely have been.

Winston Churchill’s famous of World War II speeches weaved facts and emotion together to provide the people of Britain with Kipling’s six honest serving men. His speeches spoke to what was in the hearts of the British people and engaged them in the solution.

The frustration that comes from not cutting through on behaviour change is becoming evident in the communication from government officials and health experts across the world. In Italy, several Mayors went to social media to berate Italians for not complying with the lockdown restrictions. In Australia, the frustration of Victoria’s Chief Medical Officer not following the physical distancing rules was evident:

“Some of the behaviour today – when we’re asking people to stay home – has been really crap. It’s hard to change habits and it’s hard to see dangers that aren’t apparent yet. But with 3,000 cases of COVID in Australia this week, we’re headed to 100,000 in 2-3 weeks without change”.

This not a reflection on the Chief Medical Officer but rather reflects on a communication philosophy that believes that people will rationally change in response to being told the facts. They won’t. They never have.

Make the connection between the What and Why, When and How, Where and Who…

Changing behaviour in response to COVID-19 will not come from telling me the facts but rather from engaging me in the solution. Engage me on why I need to make change and then show me what I need to do. Governments, businesses and families need to make the connection between what and why.

If we are engaged emotionally in solving the problem, then we will find all the facts we need to change our own behaviour.  A rational question such as ‘how much am I prepared to go through the inconvenience of washing my hands all the time?’ is replaced by an easier emotional decision such as ‘how much do I want be responsible for putting others at risk?’.

Our rational response usually ‘rubber stamps’ an emotional decision that has already been made. We all need a personal reason to change our behaviour – we need to consent to the change. And, you and I both need to be persuaded not told.

The why is an emotional connection to the problem and the solution. The what provides me with the guiderails on what I need to do next. When and how and where and who follow naturally.

For example, reducing the demand on medical staff who are the human face of the stress health system is a message that seems to cut through with most people. But our messaging has been a confused mix of economics, personal hygiene protocols, and lockdown measures. A simple, sharp focus on the outcome is required.

You want me to do so many things…

 Given the breadth of our response to this pandemic, it is not surprising there are lot of messages that need to be sent quickly.

There are messages about public health including, personal hygiene, physical distancing, and knowing the symptoms. These are practical messages that we need to engage all people with and ensure, as best we can, compliance.

There are the messages about the adjustments we need to make to our work and lives. These are about the location of work, school children, the routines of flexible work, ways of continuing business, new ways of interacting. A little mind-bendingly, work and life just became the same thing over night. Work-life balance? Less a problem of balance now and more a problem of separation.

There are messages about health, wellbeing and anxiety. Social distance for some is social isolation. This is an issue where the community will need to find a solution. Anxiety, my own, my children’s, my extended family’s (here and overseas), and my friend’s.

 There are messages that need to challenge and dismiss the fear and misinformation that lead to unhelpful behaviours and anxiety. The World Health Organisation Director-General, Dr Tedros, has said, ‘Our greatest enemy right now is not the virus itself, it’s fear, rumour and stigma’. The twitterverse expressed a similar sentiment but in blunter terms: ‘I feel like we are fighting two things: COVID-19 and stupidity’.

So many messages, so many questions, and so much information. It cannot all be directed from the centre. In a behavioural change campaign, the centre set the direction and the community carries the message. We all have a part to play. The key is to activate the community.

Don’t tell me, show me, persuade me…

COVID-19 is a major disruption to all our lives. New patterns of behaviour are required to contain the virus, and there is little doubt the greater portions of our daily lives will continue to be affected for some time to come. However, if we want behaviour to change, then we need to work at it in structured and persistent way. The key observations for us are:

  • In a crisis, behaviour is a strategic consideration not an after thought
  • Behaviour change is the art of understanding human behaviour in context and implementing strategic messaging campaigns to activate the community
  • Tell people the facts but understand the facts alone will not change my behaviour
  • Emotion is the principal driver of human behaviour, so engage people in the problem and the solution
  • On every topic, engage people with Kipling’s six honest serving men but pay most attention to what and why.
  • Assume that most people want to do the right thing they just need to be shown how
  • For those who don’t change, and there are always some, enforcing compliance is a necessary part of the integrity of the whole
  • Not all voices are trusted equally, so empower experts, community leaders, and business leaders
  • Businesses connect directly with their employees and their customers in the community, so business leaders can play a role in the community response that government and non-government organisations cannot

Most of all, answer the practical and day-to-day questions that people want answered.

About the Authors

Sally Dorsett and Dr. David Schmidtchen lead Synergy’s creativeXpeople practice. You can find out more about that hereJason Perelson is Synergy’s Creative Director and spends his time helping our clients to design strategic messaging campaigns.

If we can help with you with strategic messaging and behaviour change, contact us today.

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