Behavioural science experts: ‘Government COVID-19 messaging must be clear and avoid a divisive tone’

Government messaging on the coronavirus pandemic should be clear, positive and targeted, and avoid an authoritarian or divisive tone in order to help people stick to social distancing rules, behavioural experts have warned.

Avoid messages which are authoritarian in tone or which provoke disgust, behavioural science academics warn the Government
Avoid messages which are authoritarian in tone or which provoke disgust, behavioural science academics warn the Government

Clear, positive messaging which is segmented by age, culture, and geography is the key to helping the public stick to social distancing measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

However, messaging that is authoritarian or punitive in tone, or which is socially divisive, will have the opposite effect.

The advice, which appeared in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, was from nine academics, including professors of health psychology, education and neuroscience, led by Chris Bonell, professor of public health sociology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

The authors set out 11 key communication principles that governments should follow, based on a body of behavioural science and the study of other infections such as SARS and MERS.

By following these principles of communication, government interventions on social distancing are “more likely to achieve their intended outcomes and less likely to generate unintended consequences,” the authors said.

The key principles are:

Clear and specific guidance

• ‘Protect each other’

• ‘Stand together’

• ‘This is who we are’

• Avoid messages based on fear or disgust

• Avoid authoritarian messages

• Make a plan and review it regularly

• Make it possible

• Style of messaging

• Theory of change

• Co-design

The authors expanded on elements of the key principles.

Clear and specific guidance

Information by itself won’t always secure mass behaviour change, but it is still important and the public needs clear, specific, and consistent guidance on exactly what behaviours they need to adopt for social distancing.

They added that messaging needs to focus on the importance of how behaviour change protects everyone, including the most vulnerable, key workers, and loved ones. And it should include concrete examples, powerful images, and the actual voices of those most in need of protection. But they warned that a ‘one size fits all' approach would fail to recognise the impact of age, income and ethnicity on the sacrifices required to stick to social distancing rules.

Messages based on fear or disgust

Messaging should avoid invoking fear or disgust in response to the behaviour of others and should not adopt an authoritarian tone. The authors added: “Messages based on coercion and authority can in some circumstances achieve large changes in the short term, but can be hard to sustain in the longer term.”

Protect yourself/Stand together

‘Protect yourself’ messages will have limited overall impact among the general public because many consider themselves at low risk of severe consequences from COVID-19 infection and are unlikely to be persuaded otherwise, said the authors.

However, a ‘stand together’ principle, which emphasises membership of groups – from families to nation, but all linked by a sense of duty, solidarity and inclusion, irrespective of creed or cultural background – would be more effective, they said. Messages should come from trusted peers, including social-media influencers and celebrities, rather than from those regarded as partisan or self-interested, and it’s worth tailoring them by age, gender, cultural beliefs and geography.

This is who we are

This principle draws on the informal rules that govern group culture and behaviour, but messaging should avoid focusing on undesirable behaviours, such as ‘don’t panic buy’ or ‘don’t bend the rules’.

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