Spreading the message, stopping the virus: Communicating behavioural change during COVID-19

Whether it’s moving house or switching jobs, we’re all guilty of preferring the comforts of our daily routines and sticking to what we know. Even small shifts in lifestyle, such as attempts to curb a bad diet or do more exercise, can be difficult for us creatures of habit.

But now we find ourselves in a very different time, where lifestyle change has moved beyond the small sacrifice of forsaking dessert in favour of the gym. The severity of the current global pandemic, COVID-19, has reached such heights that governments around the world have had to achieve monumental changes in our daily behaviour at an incredible speed – from encouraging us to wash our hands to ensuring we abide by the lockdown restrictions.

We take a look at how the government has tackled what is, arguably, the single most difficult communication challenge in a generation.

The Power of Persuasion

COVID-19 is a disease that required a communication strategy like no other. It needed great sociological and psychological insight, which was headed up by the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), led by David Halpern.

In a blog post written in February, just as the virus had taken a hold across parts of Asia, BIT offered essential advice to tackling the pandemic. Firstly, the behavioural experts warned that government would need to gain public trust, something outlined in the World Health Organisation’s guide to communicating during a pandemic.

As BIT notes, politicians are among the least trusted professions, particularly after the onslaught of Brexit promises. Doctors, however, rank among the most trusted working professionals. This likely explains why the daily press conference features the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty, or another medical expert. This balance of trust and power has been key. The politicians may be good at their punchy rhetoric, with Johnson often channelling his hero Churchill, but, to the public, the scientists, with their unadorned, direct language, can often come across as more trustworthy.

BIT’s second recommendation was for clear and precise messaging. Jargon messes with language’s ability to instruct and inform which, as a result, hinders the public’s ability to understand and abide. This is why the simple, yet memorable, ‘Stay at Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives’, has become our pandemic mantra. Removing language which teeters on being suggestive (‘we advise’, ‘we’re suggesting’) and replacing it with clear instruction avoids any room for interpretation.

In a recent interview on Radio Four’s Start the Week, David Halpern (CEO of BIT) has also explained the importance of implementing behavioural changes which the public can realistically follow. For example, telling people not to touch their face isn’t something people can do with ease as we unconsciously touch our face around 20 to 30 times an hour. Washing our hands more regularly however, is a simple and effective message that the government can more easily communicate.

BIT also claimed that operational transparency was key to keeping the public on side. Being left in the dark causes anxiety, whereas active demonstration of government activity keeps the public reassured that work is being done. As BIT states, social media is a key tool “as it allows real-time information” – and the government has really gone to town with it. Twitter’s news function now has ‘Coronavirus tweets from UK authorities’ as the top agenda (a bid to rein in the circulation of fake news), CMO Whitty appears as the new face of the Apple iTunes store, with an important public message, and a WhatsApp government information service is also available.

Mixed signals

Despite evident successes in the communications plan, invariably criticism has arisen.

Alastair Campbell has been among those unimpressed with particular elements of government strategy. The former advisor to Tony Blair has written a blog post which suggests there has been a lack of communicative transparency. He gestures to Boris Johnson’s earlier boast that the UK “can send [the virus] packing in twelve weeks”, and says the remark “was foolhardy, and not supported by anything else being said”. Slip-of-the-tongue comments like these have wrongly raised public expectation – and the government was under pressure to reveal an exit strategy for weeks.

This forms part of the criticism that the government has lacked clarity throughout. Clusters of language belonging to the field of science or sociology, such as ‘social distancing’, are not specific, which, as Jill Rutter, senior fellow for the Institute for Government, points out, gives people room to twist and bend the rules. Rutter says the instructions implemented prior to lockdown are a key example of “mixed messaging”: “telling the population not to go to restaurants or cafes, but refusing to shut them down, allows people to rationalise that the government does not really mean what it is saying.”

Tunnel vision

As we finally venture closer to the light at the end of the “alpine” tunnel, which Johnson referred to in his press briefing last week, the UK finds itself in need of an exit strategy and, with it, a means of communicating a new normal.

It’s not until later this week that we will get a glance at how our exit may shape up, but looking at countries across Europe, who are beginning to ease their restrictions, it’s clear that emerging from a pandemic requires a brand new rule book. It’s unlikely that there will be a single, key instruction applicable to the entire nation this time, unlike our entry into lockdown which was earmarked by the signature ‘Stay at Home’ slogan. Some are even arguing that this message has been so effective, that the public may be apprehensive to venture out, even when restrictions begin to ease. Finding the balance – and the language – to ensure the public understand, are reassured and do not push the boundaries will be critical.

If the Prime Minister really is confident that there is “sunlight and pasture ahead of us”, we have to hope that a well-prepared and effective communications plan sits alongside the much-anticipated exit strategy.