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Ice-cold communication

Ice cold

Tom Gillingham


Delivering effective behaviour change initiatives is notoriously hard, which is something the UK government may reflect on as it belatedly launches its energy saving public information campaign this weekend.

It is almost as if the lessons of public communications during Covid – don’t react to events too late, give people time to adjust, and enlist influential advocates – have bled away, like hot air under a draughty door.

Up until now, the government hoped that market forces – i.e. eye wateringly expensive bills – would be enough to dampen demand for gas, but this has not transpired. In Germany (where, incidentally, there has been a high-profile public information campaign) demand is down between 15 and 40 per cent. In the UK? A mere 0.3 per cent fall beyond what would have been expected pre energy crisis.

So, how does the imminent campaign shape up in communications terms?

A key ask will be for people to reduce the temperature of their thermostats. This, taken on its own, makes sense. For many, a one degree drop would be manageable, would save households money, and ultimately reduce the cost of the UK government’s energy guarantee by some £3bn.

The campaign strapline “it all adds up” (Tesco may feel a twinge of recognition) is sensible at least. Sometimes, problems as vast as the current cost of living crisis can be framed in terms that engender a sense of powerlessness, ultimately leading to individual inaction. Focusing on the impact of small steps means there is more chance of people believing their actions can have a cumulative effect.

Even if the central message is sound enough, the bigger issue here is deploying communications to react to events, rather than shaping them. This is particularly evident in the timing of this campaign launch.

Bitterly cold weather, and pleas from various charities to heat at least one room to 18 degrees will be front of mind. Put together with direct government payments for energy, there is far from a clear picture on the best approach.

With the launch now falling in the run up to Christmas, getting this reactive communications approach to ‘cut through’ the festive noise will be difficult – not to mention expensive.

The campaign is expected to run across radio, print media, social media and traditional TV advertising, but how much more awareness could have been gained if influencers had more time to create content around cold weather ‘hacks’ to help hard-pressed householders, or if structured discussions had been pushed onto TV studio sofas for the last few months? Let’s not even get into the challenge of a message that fragments as soon as it comes into contact with devolved administrations and their respective responsibilities.

Planning ahead allowed the likes of Germany and France to frame their respective behaviour change asks as a phased process, rather than a panicked last-minute reaction. This has a direct read-across for any business looking ahead to a potentially challenging communications landscape in 2023.

As any driver faced with a deep freeze knows, slamming on the brakes tends to cause uncontrolled spinning. That is the opposite of what a good public or corporate information campaign wants to achieve.


Get in touch with Tom to find out more about planning and delivering impactful behaviour change campaigns.