When the health of the nation is at stake, are scare tactics the best place to start?

If there's an especially vicious strain of flu on the horizon, the best way to mobilise people to get vaccinated is to hit them with the fact that flu can kill, right?

Don't scare people away from your campaign messages, warns Clare Cook
Don't scare people away from your campaign messages, warns Clare Cook

When people’s health is under threat and you want to help them protect themselves, shocking them into action can look like an appealing strategy.

It can certainly be effective: the chilling 'Don’t die of ignorance' campaign in the 1980s was credited with helping to reduce HIV infections in the UK.

But while scare tactics clearly can have a place in public health campaigns, I don’t think they should ever be considered the default.

Yes, scare tactics can fuel eye-catching creative and bag serious column inches, but invoking the fear factor can also cause people to back away and switch off.

When you’re trying to change people’s behaviour, you need to show them how they can change as well as why the change is needed – because if the 'why' is so terrifying that they simply switch off, the all-important 'how' isn’t going to be seen or heard.

Public Health England’s recent 'Keep antibiotics working' campaign could have grabbed attention by showing people the grim reality of a future without effective antibiotics.

Instead, it focused on empowering people to make better choices by educating them about why antibiotics aren’t always the answer to a cough or cold, and what they can do to make sure antibiotics work when they really do need them.

Because health affects us all, health-related behavioural-change programmes can have huge target audiences.

If you’re trying to reach every adult, or every parent or teen, how do you target your messages and which channels do you use?

Everything comes down to segmentation: the bigger the audience, the greater the need to break it down into groups and understand each group’s behaviours, drivers and influencers.

‘Influencers’ has become synonymous with social-media personalities, but some of the people who can be most effective in nudging those around them towards better health may be strangers to Instagram and Twitter.

Religious and community leaders, for example, can be powerful advocates for health.

While traditional media can be one of the most effective ways to communicate complex messages to a wide audience, social media can be key for driving people to those messages.

When you need to reach everyone, you need to be everywhere and combine traditional and digital channels.

Most important of all, you need to work with your target audiences to shape messages and tactics that hit home and empower lasting behavioural change.

To do this you need to get close to your audiences, not scare them away.

Clare Cook is an associate director at 90TEN and a former senior comms manager at Public Health England 

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