COVID COMMS #34: ‘We need dramatic stories of compliance.’

Right now we are in the eye of the storm of the pandemic and we are running through the tools we have available to us.

Government messaging has become blunted over time.

I’ve blogged about the need for local messages with a local accent and the need for tough local stories to cut through.

Language needs looking at, too.

The situation is not ‘challenging’. A Rubik’s Cube is challenging. It is 70,000 dead and that, my friends, needs more direct language.

I was listening to BBC Radio 4 when Professor Stephen Reacher, of the University of St Andrews’ school of Psychology and Neuroscience was interviewed.

We are communicating this all wrong, he said.

If you tell people ‘everyone is doing this, stop it’ what you communicate is ‘everyone is doing it.’

In a British Medical Journal blog he advances the research that most people are sticking to the rules. He goes onto say that reporting individual acts of minor transgressions just builds a picture where EVERYONE is playing fast and loose with the rules.

Aside from being inaccurate, he said, it has the dangerous affect of normalising not sticking to the rules and it allows people to decide to more easily break them.

In short, no-one else is doing it, why should I?

On BBC Radio 4 Today he explained his position further:

A lot of time we see headlines about people breaking the rules and we see politicians saying to people: ‘Look, it’s up to you. You’ve got to obey the rules.’ Of course, everyone does need to obey the rules. We’ve all got to take responsibility for it but it’s not there that the problem lies.

“If you look at all the evidence it shows by and large most people are to a very high degree obeying the rules. It’s about 80 or 90 per cent and that’s stayed pretty constant throught the pandemic.

“The problem is we imply the public is the weak link when the evidence shows we’re not. The reason why it is counter-productive is two fold. Firstly, if you tell people ‘everyone is doing this, stop it’ what you communicate is ‘everyone is doing it.’ You set a ‘negative norm’ and people think ‘everyone else is doing it, why shouldn’t I?’

“The second thing is, if we are going to get through this pandemic it’s got to be as a partnership between the Government and the public. Government have got to support the public and the public has got to go along with what the Government asks of them. If you blame people you break that partnership Government starts to be seen as ‘them’ and their influence starts to drop.”

Professor Reicher added that reporting focusses on the abnormal not the normal wshen what we needed are ‘dramatic stories of compliance’.

The next day the Today programme featured some of those stories.

A couple who have taken to playing Scrabble via Zoom, for example.

Or Richard from Lincolnshire. He spoke of the funeral for his wife Sheila who passed away during lockdown of a non-COVID issue. There was no Wake and no thanking the 30 who attended.

Petra spoke of her Christmas plans being changed and the service station was full of people exchanging large bags of presents at a safe distance.

It makes me think of the deep well of stories that are out there and how it would be good to see them played out.

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1 Comment

  1. Hi Dan
    I hope you are well. I just wanted to follow up from this blog of yours back in January. I read it and it sparked an idea.

    The local authority where I work had been having zero engagement with our central government and local resilience forum messages around Covid and the hands, face and space messages. Even the trolls and Covid deniers had given up commenting. Each post we put out was met with a tumbleweed and no interactions at all. After ten months, I’d exhausted the different ways to say wash your hands, cover your face and keep your distance.

    I wanted to look at a different approach to present the same messages. I read your blog and created a series of ‘compliance comms’ (not the snappiest title I know) messages around the activities we all do week in, week out – catching up online, staying home and staying local: following the rules.

    Members of staff and the local community submitted their photos to show us of how they were following the rules in their own ways. Each social media post had to have a ‘scene setting’ introduction explaining that most of us were staying safe and following the rules to reduce rates in our area and keep the community safe. Then I added the compliance story and each post was finished with the reminders about the hands, face and space guidance.

    We shared individual, real stories about how people were sticking to the guidelines, including:

    Children playing Guess Who online with vulnerable family members
    Messaging on lots of different platforms to keep in touch with grandparents (video)
    A primary school child’s view on home schooling and missing friends
    Walking the same routes locally and Facetiming family members who couldn’t visit
    Coping with elderly, vulnerable relatives living far away (staying away to keep them safe)
    Working from home, missing people but with cute dogs for company (dogs always go down well!)
    Visiting local beauty spots but choosing less well known areas to keep away from crowds
    Delivering shopping for grandparents without going inside their house
    A grandad facetiming his 9 week old granddaughter

    The impressions and reach of the compliance posts compared with our previous posts was dramatically different. We went from a tumbleweed to each and every post having a really positive reaction, with lots of likes, shares and comments with examples of how others were following the rules. The campaign was an easy to organise, no-cost and a creative way of boosting messages that were previously falling flat. It was really successful mini campaign for us and an easy way to get the Government messages to our residents.

    Hope you like it!

    Julie Walden

    Communications & Marketing Officer

    t: 01757 705101

    [f] Follow us on twitter @SelbyDC

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    Selby District Council, Civic Centre, Doncaster Road, Selby, YO8 9FT.


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