We’re in a global pandemic and public health communications are struggling to get through to people.
Part of the problem, as I see it, is how governments and institutions are communicating about COVID-19.
In many countries, people are just not being properly motivated to comply with public health measures like social distancing and self-isolation.
By looking at the “Protect The NHS” campaign from the United Kingdom (UK), we’ll explore how the framework of great offers can help design successful public health communications during these trying times.
Before We Continue:
I’m not a doctor. Neither am a public health expert. The only thing I know anything about is marketing.
This article is meant to spur discussion among marketers on how we can help with our skills during this crisis. It’s my sincere belief that clear, persuasive messaging can save lives.
With that said, let’s continue…
At this point, we have to understand why how we are communicating public health information matters.
Let’s start with two slightly uncomfortable things about human nature that marketing uses to
influence decision making…
Namely self-interest and fear.
It’s all about making your target audience an offer that they don’t want to refuse. Why?
Because it helps them:
- Avoid what they don’t want;
- Get what they do want.
Yet most COVID-19 messaging fails to address these unconscious motivators and doesn’t incentivize its audience to take action accordingly.
In the absence of a clear next step, Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (FUD) creep in and you end up with confusion, anxiety, and defiance.
A generalized fear of death isn’t enough to get people to comply with social distancing and public health measures aimed at stopping COVID-19.
Because if something isn’t affecting them personally and threatening the people and things they care about most people just stop paying attention at some point.
This isn’t a moral judgment. We just can’t be alert and altruistic indefinitely. It’s just how our brains are wired.
There’s only so much you can pay attention to and care about before you get overwhelmed and shut down emotionally.
Add to that the fact that, as a species, we are also bad at predicting the future (i.e. probability) and judging the consequences of our actions and you got yourself a perfect environment for FUD to thrive in.
What I propose is that instead of leaving people to their own devices we empower them for a hopeful future by focusing on things they care about and give them the tools to do create it.
So how do we reach out to people experiencing FUD and incentivize them to comply with public health measures?
By making them an offer they don’t want to ignore or refuse.
If you’re asking yourself what this kind of offer would look like, I honestly have to say that I don’t know.
Every country, culture, and community is different.
What will motivate a person in Columbia won’t necessarily motivate someone living in the Czech Republic or Cambodia.
But there is a framework that we can use to build an offer that is compelling and persuasive.
It’s based on work done by marketing guru Mark Joyner and breaks down as follows.
In his book, The Irresistible Offer (Affiliate Link | See Disclosure), Joyner’s states that to make your target audience a great offer, you’ve got to:
- Provide them with a high Return-On-Investment (ROI).
- Communicate the value they will get through a persuasive tagline.
- Make the whole thing believable and trustworthy.
Let’s use the “Protect the NHS” from the UK as an example of how this framework can be applied to COVID-19 public health communications.
Without getting too political, there was a lot of FUD when the coronavirus started spreading in the UK.
The British government struggled to come up with a message that would get through to all its people. Nothing was working until they discovered a key insighto
If you’re familiar with Britons, you know that the one thing that unites them all is their faith in the National Health Service (NHS). No matter what their ideology, class, or faith almost everyone in the UK trusts the NHS.
Source: Edward Howell
Now at the time nurses, doctors, and other frontline health workers were dying at an alarming rate while tending to the sick. Something had to be done.
And that’s when a brilliant, viral tagline was born:
“Stay home. Save lives. Protect the NHS.”
It’s the emphasis on the “Protect the NHS” that did the trick.
Many people had doubts about staying home. Some for political and others for economic reasons.
But when the pandemic threatened to overwhelm the NHS, everyone paid attention.
With videos and voice recordings of desperate health workers describing the dire situation in their hospital spreading on social media, the entire nation knew that something they valued personally was at risk.
What happened next was beautiful because the people of Britain listened when their government made them the right offer.
To paraphrase it, the British government told its people:
“You may have your opinion about the pandemic, but our health workers are fighting and dying to save lives right now. Please stay home so that they have a chance to do their job. If you don’t our health system might collapse.”
Yes, my version is way longer but you get the idea.
At this point, I have to point out that the pandemic is far from over. We’ll probably only know the true impact of this campaign in a few years.
But we’re in a crisis now and I haven’t seen a communications approach that makes more sense so far.
The “Protect The NHS” campaign has all the hallmarks of a great offer:
- It made the public a high ROI offer -i.e. protect the national health system and the people who run it that you and your loved ones depend on.
- It communicated this with a clear and persuasive tagline -i.e. “Stay at home. Save lives. Protect the NHS.” This instantly told you what you had to do to save the NHS.
- And it was believable and trustworthy because the public had already seen the first-hand testimony of health workers that proved that the situation was dire.
I sincerely believe that if national government and institutions involved in the fight again COVID-19 would adopt this over-driven communications framework in their messaging we’d be seeing more compliance and positive behavior change among the public globally.
Is this framework a magic bullet that will solve all the problems I have outlined in this article overnight?
It’s simply an idea that seems to reflect what has worked in getting people to cooperate with public health measures so far.
Humanity, as a species, is very adaptable and resilient. We will overcome this disease just as we’ve overcome everything from the Plague to the Black Death in the past.
But maybe we can save more people by communicating better with the silent majority who have the power to change the course of this pandemic.
And all it takes is making them an offer that they can’t refuse.