Beat Covid with persuasion

Most of us aren’t scientists or doctors. But we are, potentially, spreading Coronavirus. So we all need to change our behaviour. Simple behaviours like washing your hands or social distancing.

The problem is that many of us haven’t changed our behaviours yet. And even if we have, we need to stick to those changes.

The problem: Slow behaviour change

One in ten people think there is no threat from Coronavirus, and almost 20% of us refuse to wash our hands more. Only 31% think that avoiding going out is a very effective way to stop Coronavirus. An international poll recently found that the UK was less worried about Coronavirus than any other country polled. While people are starting to change their behaviour, it’s far too slow.

We need people to change their behaviour. And it’s likely we are going to need this change for the rest of 2020.

So how do we do it?

The good news is that ideas spread like viruses.

And that gives us two areas to target. Both inoculating people against bad ideas, and making good ideas more infectious.

Inoculate with good ideas

First of all we need to inoculate people against bad ideas. Making bad ideas less infectious.

Fifty years of psychological research shows that it’s hard to change people’s minds.

So the best way to stop disinformation is to inoculate people with a good belief.

Don’t tell people what the myths are.

Instead give them something true, but wrapped in emotion.

Infection and mortality rates are the language of scientists and politicians. We need to speak the language of persuasion. That means showing the emotional risk to people who don’t feel personally threatened.

For instance ‘How would you feel if you accidentally infected your granny?’.

This risk is a serious concern among experts, and it’s implicit in government communications.

But when we bring the risk to the level of one person, it works better. That’s why charities put up posters with a single child in them, not the millions who need help.

Make change interesting

Secondly we need to make behaviour change interesting. More infectious.

It’s really easy to spend a lot on advertising that isn’t noticed.

On average British people saw the Get Ready for Brexit campaign 55 times. Yet 42% of people didn’t remember it. We can’t afford for 42% of people to not change their behaviour.

The government’s new ads are an improvement. But relying on a few overstretched civil servants and their ad agencies isn’t enough to reach the full range of British society.

Repeating the same messages for months on end will also be extremely boring. In fact you are probably bored of the handwashing message already – and it’s only been a few weeks.

Instead government should create a few simple briefs around the biggest problems, and crowdsource the answer. The Wash Hands Poster generator is a great example, but why isn’t government taking the best of these and amplifying them across channels?

The brilliant creativity of Britain’s young people on TikTok can entertain older people on Facebook.

Get the right messengers

Influencers aren’t just young people though. We sometimes forget that the messenger matters to older people too.

And the government aren’t always the right people.

In 1981 the government had to decide who to communicate vital information in the event of a nuclear attack. They chose Kevin Keegan and Ian Botham. A footballer and a cricketer.

Neither knew much about nuclear war.

Because we don’t always pay attention to experts, even if we know we should.

A particular priority has to be older people. While most now say they are willing to self-isolate, it will be hard to maintain this for long periods.

If you want older people to self isolate effectively then the Queen & David Attenborough are the perfect messengers.

They are known and loved by virtually the whole country. David Attenborough is liked by 86% of people – and is associated with popular science.

When Attenborough & Windsor self-isolate and start doing video calls, people will pay attention. When the Queen keeps away from other people, not just Prince Charles, it will send a powerful signal that Coronavirus is a danger to older people.

 And when David Attenborough washes his hands and tells other people to, it will reach people who don’t trust the government.

The government should start a programme specifically targeting celebrities. Every foolish statement from a pop star creates problems that need to be undone. And every government message they carry is free advertising.

And one final challenge for the government’s campaign.

Don’t forget NHS staff

You can’t tell who has been infected with a bad ideas

We also have to be careful assuming that everyday experts like doctors are always well informed.

I did research on flu vaccine 10 years ago. NHS staff didn’t understand the benefits.

I was astounded to find that they often believed vaccine myths. Unsurprisingly only 35% got vaccinated.

The good news is that over the last ten years the NHS has doubled it. Today over 70% get the flu jab.

How did they do this? Through a highly effective NHS communications campaign.

The lesson for Coronavirus?

Inoculate with good messages. And just because it’s important, don’t think that people will listen to you.

This article originally appeared in Campaign.