Written by Kilian Tscherny.

COVID-19 has, undoubtedly, sparked some of the biggest changes our society has experienced in the last century. The rhythm of everyday life has been turned on its head, forcing us all to adopt new habits to stave off the spread of the disease, as well as dropping familiar ones that would enable its growth. Uncertainty around the scale of the pandemic is huge. Nobody truly knows when the end may be, or if we will even ever truly come out of it completely. However, what is widely understood is that both individual and collective behaviours can reduce the spread of the virus and save lives (Lunn, et al., 2020).

Research indicates that collective action is essential in combating the spread of the disease, starting with the daily habits of each and every one of us.

“Individual behaviour will be crucial to control the spread of COVID-19. Personal, rather than government action, in western democracies might be the most important issue. Early self-isolation, seeking medical advice remotely unless symptoms are severe, and social distancing are key.” (Anderson, Heesterbeek, Klinkenberg, & Hollingsworth, 2020, p. 933).

It is clear, therefore, that rapidly enacted positive behaviour change at an individual level is paramount. But how can countries encourage their populace to take part in large-scale behavioural paradigm shifts? Traditionally, policymakers will choose one of two options, education or law. Education is comprised of information designed to inform people enough to change their behaviours. When this fails, they will move to establishing it into law, to force and enforce the behaviour change.

A highly effective method of changing individual behaviours for the benefit of public health, however, is adopting a social marketing-based approach (Cheng, Kotler, & Lee, 2011). This approach often benefits the majority of the population, for whom the new behaviours are known and make sense, but perhaps require a ‘nudge’ to adopt by persuading them that their individual action matters (Thaler & Sunstein, 2009). Social marketing campaigns aim to develop a message for their target group that the benefits of the desirable behaviour outweigh the benefits of the undesirable behaviour, and that the costs of the undesirable behaviour exceed those of the desirable behaviour (Lee & Kotler, 2011). This method “takes a human centered approach to change driven by insights about what matters to people and to engaging them in defining delivering and evaluating interventions.” (ESMA, 2020).

One of the key assumptions here is that the root cause of the social or health problem (coronavirus spread in the community) is unhealthy or careless individual behaviour. These behaviours are habituated, and individuals have control over them. The main drivers of habituated unhealthy behaviours include incorrect knowledge, attitudes, and lack of viable alternatives.

According to Lee & Kotler (2015), the key objectives therefore are for citizens to:

  • Abandon a current undesirable behaviour: not practising adequate hand hygiene, making unnecessary journeys from home, travelling unnecessarily for leisure, gathering in large groups
  • Modify a current behaviour: if you do go out, ensure you wear a mask and sanitise your hands regularly
  • Reject a potentially undesirable behaviour: decline invitations to gatherings, remind peers about proper behaviours
  • Accept a new behaviour: consider the current state of affairs as the new normal, make it part of your routine to minimise the risk of spreading or contracting the disease

In the case of the Irish COVID-19 response, several key behaviours were outlined as being the primary focus for change, mated to a clear and consistent message propagated through various marketing channels throughout the course of the pandemic so far. Ireland’s Health Service Executive (HSE) has consistently communicated a small set of important points to the public through various media, including the following:

  • Social distancing
  • Handwashing
  • ‘Flattening the curve’
  • Staying home
  • ‘Being in this together’

What has made the HSE’s campaign particularly effective is the consistency in tone, visuals and messaging across every touchpoint citizens encountered it. The social issue was identified (hand hygiene and social distancing are the most effective prevention against the disease), and the targeted behaviour was determined (washing hands often, staying home, wearing a mask, avoiding gatherings or close contact with others).

The causal link was established and communicated widely early on, that poor behaviours will results in the spread of the disease – and an elongation of undesirable restrictions. However, while part of the messaging was focused on what not to do, or how not to behave, much of it also focused on the benefits of adopting these new behaviours. This distilled the problem down to a simple cause – physical contact and poor hand hygiene increases your risk of contracting the disease – and a simple solution – abide by some basic principles and you greatly reduce your individual risk of contracting or spreading the virus.

The overall tonality of the campaign has been that the government is on the side of the people, and that we all benefit greatly when we each make minor daily sacrifices. It’s almost effortlessly clear what to do what behaviours to avoid, which ensures that the meaning of the message is not lost in translation anywhere. Part of the tone and feel of the messaging can be attributed to the design of the communicative imagery – bright, somewhat minimalist, and informative. These are all traits proven to be effective in encouraging individuals to engage in positive and healthy behaviours (Egan, Mottershaw, Roy-Chowdhury, Tagliaferri, & Xu, 2020). Furthermore, research has proven that the more people feel part of a community response, the more likely they are to make a selfless contribution to the cause, especially when framed in group terms (Chaudhuri, 2011; Carter, Drury, Rubin, Williams, & Amlôt, 2013).

One of the key challenges with encouraging behavioural change during the pandemic has been ensuring that the behavioural change is adopted by as many people as possible, even those who may perceive themselves less at risk than those generally most susceptible to dying of it – with research showing that young mean are hardest to engage (Egan, Mottershaw, Perera, Roy-Chowdhury, & Tagliaferri, 2020). It is evident therefore, that individuals are not really equipped to perceive risks accurately and distort their own view of the probability of falling prey to them – a symptom of cognitive bias encapsulated in the ‘availability heuristic’ (Kahneman & Tversky, 1973, 1984; Kahneman, 2011). This involves a complicated process of establishing new norms against which everyday behaviour is now judged. Robert Cialdini’s (2001; 2009; 2016) body of work on influence and persuasion is a useful starting point for dissecting the ways social marketing campaigns can effect change. Cialdini described how influence relies on six key principles, some of which (like the principle of authority) can be applied to understanding the effectiveness of the Irish COVID-19 response. Developing such norms is one side of the strategy, but so is enforcing them through social disapproval in order to encourage people to engage in beneficial behaviours, including handwashing and self-isolation, but also discourage undesirable behaviour such as panic or anger (Fehr & Gächter, 2000; Masclet, Noussair, Tucker, & Villeval, 2003).

While overall, I regard the HSE’s communication strategy as being very effective, there have been some recent indications that the strategy is not completely consistent. In recent weeks there has been rather vague messaging about mask wearing, with individuals only being ‘advised’ to wear them on public transport or while shopping. As of the 13th of July, however, part of this has been addressed with the introduction of mandatory mask wearing on public transport, though how well this will be adhered to or enforced is yet to be seen.

Through its well-crafted strategy and refined rhetoric, the HSE’s COVID-19 response demonstrates a particularly good example of crisis communications using social marketing principles to guide it. Consistent messaging, branding and regular public discussion around the actions required of citizens, combines to make what has been, for the most part, a successful campaign thus far. In many ways, the campaign has achieved its objectives. Unhealthy or unhelpful behaviours have decreased – and so has the infection rate – while some newer healthier ones have been adopted, possibly never to disappear. It’s likely this pandemic will have a resounding and lasting impact on Irish society, with the public slowly adjusting to many of the aspects of ‘the new normal’. The new vernacular includes phrases like ‘social distancing’ and ‘wash your hands’ which, though seemingly innocuous, are already beginning to have a noticeable influence on the way the individuals approach this crisis. These points, in conjunction with the adoption of new societal norms, have equipped the people of Ireland to understand and appropriately respond to the pandemic, and make their individual contributions to ending it.

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