Building social capital – Implementing behavioural science into COVID-19 communications

Drenched by late autumnal sun, there was a bonhomie radiating from Melbournians over the weekend as they took to the outdoors to enjoy the first phase of lockdown easing.

It was brief respite; the lid loosened just enough for a pressure to be released that had weighed heavy on us all after eight weeks of restrictions to basic liberties.

Policy makers and business leaders should capture the zeitgeist and use it to shape their communications and decision-making in the recovery phase.

Behavioural science tells us this good will can be used as a positive, influential force – an opportunity to build social capital.

Two leading academics in this field, Joseph Marks (University College London) and Stephen Martin (Columbia University) have drawn up some tactics for communicators to incorporate as we move through the recovery. *

Play to altruism

Highlighting and encouraging positive social norms has proven to be more effective than any other approach to influencing behaviour throughout this pandemic.

Directives such as ‘Stay at home and save lives’ or ‘don’t spread virus’, have triggered far more powerful responses than any references to personal danger.

Young people considered outside the ‘at-risk’ age group will know the internal dialogue all too well: ‘I’ll probably survive this, but I could pass it onto my grandparents who might not fare so well.’

Communicators should seek to use their own channels to showcase positive behaviours and give a platform to those behaving responsibly.

Consider the messenger

Don’t just consider the message, consider the messenger, too.

We’ve seen this at play a lot over the past couple of months with scientists and medical experts deployed to do some of the heavy lifting in press conferences. This is because the amount of credibility people lend to a message is dependent on their perception of the messenger.

In the film The Big Short, have you ever wondered why Michael Burry (played by Christian Bale) fails to convince investors of his prediction of an imminent subprime mortgage crisis?

The answer, according to behavioural scientists, is because the socially awkward Burry lacked hard messenger traits (authority, status-driven), even if the message itself was backed by solid underlying research.

Businesses seeking to reassure employees, customers and clients should look to use a combination of hard and soft messengers as they exit the lockdown. Yes, the CEO should be front and centre, but are there contexts where another messenger would be more effective?

Brevity and clarity are still king

Stick to one clear goal, with a maximum of three messages and avoid leaving them open to interpretation.

Enough has been said about this of late, recent examples have proven leaving the public to decide for themselves hasn’t worked in most cases.

Focus on benefits

If you’re asking for something from your employees, customers or the public, make sure you highlight the benefits they’ll receive in return.

For example, the government has been able to persuade millions to download the COVID-19 app by tying it to increased freedom as we move out of the lockdown. Quite simply, if you’re asking for something above and beyond the norm, it must be backed by a compelling argument to demonstrate the benefits.

Endings matter

This is called peak-end rule by cognitive scientists, which essentially means our assessment of experiences is disproportionately influenced by its final moments.

This can be visualised by a handy thought experiment:

Post-lockdown you decide to take your family on a well-earned (and legally permitted) holiday. Imagine further, that on arrival at the airport, you are offered an unexpected, free upgrade to first class. The agent at the check-in desk explains that you can travel in style either on the way out or on your return. Which do you choose?

There is a clear answer, at least to behavioural scientists. You will be much happier and have fonder memories of your trip if you travel first-class on the journey home rather than the outbound one. Why? Because our memories of experiences, even the most recent ones, are seared into our minds with extremity and recency.

So, what can communicators learn from this?

Make sure you capitalise on the feel-good factor from the lockdown easing, make a big deal about it and show there is light at the end of the tunnel. It could prove invaluable if we slip back into another lockdown abyss.

*Joseph Marks and Stephen Martin, authors of ‘Messengers: Who We Listen To, Who We Don’t and Why

Final word from our Culture Manager

I’d like to take a moment to reflect on my role at Pesel & Carr.

As Culture Manager I produce a lot of content, both for 47 and for the company Instagram. It is content that so often employs the technique of comic relief. This is a device that draws from the innately human impulse to use humour to cut tension.

In strange, troubling times such as these, comic relief seems to extend itself to a kind coping mechanism. We’ve seen COVID-19 related memes, and the use of light, funny stories to break up the heaviness of the daily news.

Comic relief has been ubiquitous over the course of human history.

Shakespeare used it to great effect. Following Macbeth’s brutal murder of his friend, King Duncan, is a somewhat unrelated aside, involving a new character, “The Porter” who sentimentalises on his difficult relationship with alcohol:

Marry, sir, nose-painting, sleep, and urine. (25)
Lechery, sir, it provokes and unprovokes: it provokes the
desire, but it takes away the performance.

The silliness of the scene helps relieve the tension of the proceeding one. We almost forget the protagonist just fatally stabbed his guest in his sleep.

The idea is explored by ‘relief theory’, which maintains that laughter is a mechanism by which psychological tension is reduced. So, laughter results from a nervous energy, like when a tickler finally strikes, and the buildup of tension is relieved.

This is a powerful tool for people in marketing and communications.

Mountain Dew proved this point in their Super Bowl ads. They build enormous tension by recreating the iconic “here’s Johnny” scene from The Shining, but by replacing “here’s Johnny” with “here’s Mountain Dew” tension is relieved!

I’ll be digging holes and sniffing around in search of the finest comedic content to get us through the pandemic, if you have something to share, send it my way!