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Geoff Hinkins

3 tips for applying behavioural science to public services messages

The Government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic has brought behavioural science into the spotlight again, with sometimes negative opinions aired in the press on the ethics and effectiveness of its use. Our view, based on a decade of experience, is that it has a valuable role in public services messaging, but a general approach will not work – it needs to be adapted to the current context. This is why we talk about ‘applied behavioural science’ rather than just ‘behavioural science’. The way in which messages are framed, phrased and presented will have a significant impact on how they are received, understood, and acted upon. This is particularly important in the context of a high-profile issue such as a pandemic, when people may be receiving conflicting advice or advice from many different sources.

During the current crisis, we have been working with local authorities and health organisations to create communications materials for the web, print and for use by teams on the front line of public services. In each case we have focused on understanding and encouraging the behaviours desired from residents and frontline staff. Adopting these behaviours results in people being directed more quickly to the information that they need, and has helped prevent services and helplines from becoming overwhelmed with demand.

When using applied behavioural science to shape communications, our experience is that there are three key points that can make or break the success of your messaging:

  1. Know what behaviour you want to encourage. Agree the specific behaviours that you want to see and review all your messaging to understand how it might promote, or undermine, those behaviours. Be as specific as possible to ensure instructions are unambiguous. ‘We want people to take the necessary steps to protect themselves and others from coronavirus’ is too vague. ‘We want people to stay at home’ is perfect.
  2. Keep it simple and reinforce key messages. Use plain English and be as brief as possible. ‘Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives’ is great messaging – it is brief, easy to understand, and easy to remember – and also plays on the importance of the NHS to the national consciousness. Consistency is also key; keep repeating and reinforcing your key messages at every opportunity. Repeating relevant national messaging wherever possible rather than developing your own tagline is the best approach.
  3. Promote the behaviour you want to see. Behavioural science tells us that we tend to do what we perceive other people around us to be doing. Criticising people that break the rules may be counter-productive, as it draws attention to the behaviours you want to avoid. Media highlighting people breaking the rules by sunbathing in parks, or showing people stockpiling toilet roll, may encourage more of those behaviours – even when they’re accompanied by messages intended to shame the people that are doing it. Thanking residents for staying at home and highlighting specific activity shifts (reduction in traffic, fewer children at school) is likely to be far more effective.

Applied behavioural science is one of the key strands of our EDGEWORK approach, and we’re continuing to work with public sector organisations to embed a behavioural focus in their response to Covid-19. If you’d like to hear more, please do get in touch.

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