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Cough, cough. Nudge, nudge
Written by Tom Gillingham, associate partner
10 March 2020
The global spread of coronavirus or Covid-19 has provoked a return of the expert in the UK. In June 2016, Michael Gove famously said “people in this country have had enough of experts”, yet we are now at a point where his fellow Brexiteer, Boris Johnson, is rarely seen in public without one.
While coronavirus is first and foremost a medical challenge, it is also the ultimate test of governments’ ability to effectively communicate with their populaces and spur them into action.
In authoritarian countries, leaders can force their people to comply with diktats, but in democracies they generally rely on persuasion to change behaviour. And the current situation is one of the most significant global tests of this maxim.
Behaviour change is notoriously hard to affect, particularly when the issue being communicated is as fundamentally complex as the spread of coronavirus.
As with a new technology, or a novel terrorist atrocity, humans are notoriously terrible at assessing, quantifying and reacting to risk. This is where lesser-known organisations such as the Behavioural Insights Team – otherwise known as the ‘nudge unit’, borne out of the Cameron government – come into play.
If the chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, is the frontman of the UK government’s information-led response to the virus, the nudge unit are his session musicians – ever present, but always in the background.
Their hand, or at least the hand of communications experts and behavioural scientists, is clear in the government’s guidance. The communicator’s mantra of a simple message repeated often is evident in the suggestion to sing Happy Birthday twice while washing your hands (other songs are available). It’s far more memorable than ‘take 20 seconds’ and is clearly a choice designed to start conversations.
This is an easy message to communicate, and it’s something most of us will have noticed being repeated across the media. Another effective example of this was the NHS’s visual guide to facial hairstyles that work with masks. However, the real challenge – as with any mass communications campaign – is reaching the audiences that are less engaged with traditional media.
There is a significant lag in trust of NGOs, government, and the media between ‘informed public’ and ‘mass population’, and this offers ample space for conspiracy theories and panic to thrive.
You’ve probably seen the ‘bat soup’ video, or heard something about the virus being related to 5G. Widely shared content like this can provoke an entirely different sort of behaviour change such as panic buying or distrust of certain groups, unless that information gap is filled.
For this reason, it’s interesting to see widespread reports of tech companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter cracking down on fake news associated with the virus. Ebay and Amazon have made public declarations that they are rooting out sellers of products that make false claims.
If trust in traditional sources is so low amongst the ‘mass population’, these tech giants have a singularly huge responsibility in the information-led response to this global outbreak.
Against these challenges, the UK government is putting enormous faith in its ability to communicate, aided in part by (at the time of writing) a lower infection rate than some European peers.
Only time will tell if this was the correct call, but its rationale for stopping short of Italy-style mass closures is down to another interesting psychological factor. Simply, people get bored quickly. If prompting behaviour change is hard, it’s even more difficult to embed it for a sustained period, especially if it involves significant inconvenience.
The experts are trying to limit the harshest measures, like mass quarantine, until a critical infection point is reached to ensure they are as effective as possible. In the words of Jason Leitch, National Clinical Director of the Scottish Government, on BBC Radio Scotland this morning, the current plan for infection is to turn “Ben Nevis into Arthur’s Seat.”
Now, if you are even vaguely familiar with Scottish hills, this is a far easier analogy to relate to than something along the lines of ‘we need to flatten the epidemic peak curve’. This sort of plain-speaking led to positive feedback from listeners and apparently better understanding of the overall strategy.
The coronavirus outbreak is therefore a stark reminder of the power, and limitations, of state-led communication.
People have unprecedented access to information, and it can feel faintly surreal that instead of hazmat suits and quarantine fences, Happy Birthday, and an earnest medic are front and centre of government response to the crisis.
We will know soon enough if the softly, softly approach was correct for the UK, but if we see the sustained return of experts with deft communications skills, surely that can only be a good thing for national problem-solving.