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What do you think about the UK government’s core message on Covid-19? Stay home, protect the NHS, (and) save lives. If the UK government’s response is informed by science, does this extended to its communications?

Three messages developed to overcome any cognitive static, be repeated frequently and designed to stick in the audience’s mind. Each briefing begins and ends with these messages. They are the cornerstone of the government communication strategy. They need to work to save lives. A vital question is, are these messages informed by communication theory and evidence from previous pandemics?

The three messages are apparently designed to run together and the lead spokesperson is incorporating them into briefings in various ways. As the UK government’s key message they warrant critical analysis. Alone they could be misconstrued or misunderstood. Stay home is clear for those that can, but what if you cannot? Protect the NHS and save lives sound like PR, known as “glittering generalities” in the trade. During a crisis, there is no place for ambiguity.

Let’s break down the messages:

  1. Stay at home: An ”action” or ”to do” message. A valid message but not one everyone can comply with. Workers in critical infrastructure (health, food, pharmaceuticals) or in manufacturing or construction, for example, cannot stay home. Many citizens are greatly concerned about going to work and the duty of care of employers to ensure workplaces are safe during the pandemic;
  2. Protect the NHS: A responsibility message on the part of the audience. By staying home you can flatten the outbreak curve and lessen the burden on the health service, and ”protect the NHS.” Alone this message is ambiguous and in the context of government action and the Brexit debate, political;
  3. Save lives: by staying home and contributing to fewer cases, you can save lives. Another audience responsibility message with overtures of control (an important message theme).

Together as one sentence, these 7 words are easily remembered. Originally, the messages were not presented together but were placed separately on each of the three plinths. When focussed on the central spokesperson, usually PM Boris Johnson, only one message was visible, “Protect the NHS.” This was quickly changed to the configuration pictured above. All three plinths have the same message. Is this a case of maximising “accessibility” and enhancing recall, or for lack of anything else to say?

During this pandemic, there is plenty more to say within the known limits of retention. We can easily retain and process at least 27 words in three complete sentences during high-stress situations. As such the messages are lacking in essential information and clarity. They appear to have a political foundation and lack sufficient context. For example, if you cannot stay home, the implication might be you are not protecting the NHS or saving lives. You are being irresponsible. Is this the correct inference for those that are already worried by having to go to work to support their families?

When designing crisis messages, breaking them down into tried and tested themes is essential. The government message themes are action (A) “stay home”, and two responsibility for audience (RA) messages. The latter locus of responsibility is unusual. The US CDC’s Crisis + Emergency Risk Communication framework prescribes a response theme of “REA:” responsibility, empathy, action. The responsibility (R) is that of those responding to the crisis, usually the government. Sometimes responsibility is emphasised on the part of the audience, in taking responsibility for themselves and others where the action is hard to inspire. Health promotion campaigns (obesity, condoms, seat belts) are typical of this application of a responsibility message. They are superfluous during a crisis situation.

Empathy (E) for those affected is critical. The UK government communications have lacked empathy. Dismissing 20,000 deaths as ”doing a good job” is typical of the lack of compassion for ordinary people, first responders, and frontline healthcare workers. Actions (A) are things to do, for example, messages of self-efficacy (how you can protect yourself). These are critical in Covid-19.

Another message theme or template is “KDG”, developed by Dr Vincent Covello and used successfully after the 1993 bombings of the Twin Towers in New York, 9/11, the Ebola outbreak and various critical food incidents. “K” is a knowledge message, what people need to know. “D” is an action or “do” message, which could extend beyond protective actions to “lookout for the vulnerable.” “G” is a “go” message. Where to get more information.

How would we design messages using REA and KDG and would these be more effective? To start, I would use the press briefings to relay three sets of messages, each in total 9 words or less. Put these together you have three entire sentences in under 27 words, about 9 seconds to speak. I would be careful to put the most important messages first and last, according to the primacy-recency effect.

As the UK government likes to remind us, they are guided by science and the best available data. For me, this also extends to how messages are designed. There is no room for politics, PR or gimmicks. It’s about saving lives. To save lives we need to take a forensic approach to communication and how the public reacts to pandemics.

In this pandemic, as with SARS and severe outbreaks of seasonal influenza, there are four factors to consider when designing messages:

  1. Public perception of threat;
  2. Public perception of severity;
  3. Public perception of the response;
  4. Public self-efficacy.

During the SARS epidemic, the perception of threat was overriding. And the same is true with Covid-19, perhaps more so. The Covid-19 virus has spread far more than SARS, which was largely restricted to parts of China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan. It was largely confined within healthcare settings and certain hotspots. Severity was significant during the SARS outbreak with a 10% mortality rate. While the Covid-19 mortality rate may eventually turn out to be nearer 1%, its severity is variable and unpredictable. Young and old are rightly feeling vulnerable. Its distribution seems almost random, and randomness is a well-characterised risk amplification factor.

The perception of the response refers to how a country is testing, tracking and treating patients and the on-going capacity to do so. There are very significant concerns globally about such capabilities, with shortages of basic PPE, lack of ICU beds and respirators. The global figures of cases and deaths inundate every form of media and amplify the perception of threat and severity and the fragility of response. Audiences perceive a severe threat that is hard to treat (no cure or vaccine making comparisons to seasonal ‘flu’ irrelevant) that could spiral out of control if health services are overwhelmed. The perceived threat can be addressed by demonstrating the effectiveness of the response, showing the incredible efforts being made and that recovery is possible. Telling the stories of those recovered would help here.

This leads to the fourth factor. Perceived self-efficacy. This is a key area where positive, action-orientated messages under individual control to counter the threat can be used. Wash your hands being the most fundamental.

Thus, through the evidence from SARS, and employing parts of REA and KDG, we can mix and match to design three messages. We will also use one additional template, “CCO.” Courage, conviction and optimism. Winston Churchill used it well. CCO will help round out the messages, so they can also be read as coherent sentences. Here are my message designs:

  1. Stop the spread, stay at home, wash your hands (KDA);
  2. In this together, keep your distance, save lives; (RDR)
  3. For those we lost, keep the faith, (EOG).

The first message tells the public how to stop the virus from spreading and deal with the threat. What they should do as much as possible is to stay at home (if they can). The message of action is the key self-efficacy message, wash your hands. This applies to everyone at all times. It is missing from the current UK messaging.

The second message is an “RDR” configuration. The first message, “In this together” is a message of collective or shared responsibility by both Government and citizens…the solution can only be arrived at together. Keep your distance is a “do” message and a term that is familiar to the audience from road traffic campaigns but can be used here. Save lives is part responsibility with an emphasis on control.

The final set is an “EOG” configuration, absent completely from the government’s messages to date (though the Scottish press briefings have included a “go” message). Empathy for those we have lost, we take these actions for them and they will not be forgotten or left to be statistics. This would be useful as a prompt for the spokespeople to make proper reference to those who have died, those who are grieving and those who are suffering. Every crisis response must show (and demonstrate) empathy. “Keep the faith” is intended as a message of optimism. It’s going to be a long fight against the virus, if we lose discipline or become complacent our efforts may be wasted. Finally a “go” message, in this instance an easily recalled web address to get reliable information from a trusted source (if the government is trusted).

At the daily briefings, it would look something like this, each set of messages in front of each speaker.

Evidence-based communication platform fo Covid-19.
Three sets of messages for UK Covid-19.

Let me know what you think of this structure in the comments below.

Andrew Roberts

Author Andrew Roberts

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