February 24, 2022

Lessons from a public health campaign

Striking the right note, getting across complex scientific information in plain English, stopping the message becoming ‘noise’ and persuading us to change our behaviour: quite the brief for the campaign manager charged with getting out the Covid-19 public health message. So how did they do?

I’m standing in the queue to get my first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine and I’m speed-reading the leaflet I’ve been handed. I’m hungry for information because, despite the avalanche of coverage of the vaccine roll-out, some of my questions have not been answered. 

I don’t expect to be able to take in the information in the leaflet. This is partly because of the circumstances – I’m minutes away from getting the vaccine, so my nervous system is working at full throttle, and I’m trying to follow the instructions of the staff as I make my way through the vaccination centre. Furthermore, I expect the leaflet to be written like many public health or public information materials – in dreadful, opaque civil-service language. You know what I mean, don’t you? No matter how many times you read it, it just won’t go in.

Distracted is the modern state of being

My very distracted state mirrors the way many of our customers or prospective customers encounter the content we produce, whether it’s on social media, our website or in a printed leaflet like the one I’m holding as I queue. They are distracted, often at several levels. 

So nobody was more surprised than me to find the information I needed to know in that leaflet. You could say I had a problem I was hoping the leaflet would solve. Whoever put it together anticipated my problem and gave me the answer in a way I could easily digest. That is the challenge for all of us in the marketing business.

There was another challenge the leaflet writers overcame, a challenge they have in common with all of us business owners and marketers: the demographic of the reader. This short leaflet had to reach pretty-much EVERYBODY. Everyone who can read that is. Within that cohort there is a scale of reading ability, a range of ages (over 18, let’s assume), and many different positions on Covid-19 and the vaccines! 

I think they did very well.

Familiarity breeds contempt

As someone who crafts messages for my clients every day, many of which have been, in the last two years, pandemic related, I had been listening to the Government or public health radio ads that followed every change in our Covid-19 protocols with particular interest. Of course, I really listened only the first or second time I heard them; after that, they became noise. 

The ex-‘Fair City’ actress Clelia Murphy did them all at first. Her voice was clear, friendly; she was relatable, but I feel she became the voice of the pandemic. I suspect people stopped listening to the detail after a while. I know I did. And so they started to use different voices: male, female, regional accents. The tone, however, remained the same. It was gentle but firm, used super-simple language, expressed gratitude for our efforts, and was empathetic and reassuring. 

This is precisely the process we, as marketers,  have to engage in to keep breaking through the noise, the perpetual states of distraction our customers are in, their anxiety, boredom with the topic, even anger.

We have to change it up, keep it fresh, try different things, but always measure, observe, use data and actual feedback to keep reaching our audiences.

At some point in the pandemic, the public health campaign people realised that younger people were not being reached. The #AntiViral campaign, using social media and influencers, was devised to reach this specific cohort. Simple profiling, which we all do in our marketing, helped reach an important demographic.

Translating complex source material

Here’s something else you might not have appreciated: the source material. Imagine how intensely data-rich were the reports or updates that NPHET, the Department of Health, the HSE and numerous other bodies would have supplied to the communications office for dissemination. Imagine the amount of scientific, statistical and medical jargon they would have been riddled with. Translating that into everyday language that we could take in as we made the dinner, walked the dog, drove to the shop and so on, in our perennially distracted ways, either takes a lot of time – I’m talking multiple drafts to shake off the official speak and jargon – or a real gift for communicating things simply.

There’s what we want them to know and what we want them to do

It’s all very nice for the Government to know someone like me thought they did a good job with the radio ads, but, to get down to brass tacks, the success of the Covid-19 public information campaign hung on people doing certain things – mostly not doing things actually, at least at the beginning – but handwashing, keeping one’s distance, mask-wearing, getting tested and getting vaccinated were all critical to the Government’s strategy against Covid-19. 

The art of persuasion is a fascinating and rich area that has only recently been studied in depth, so I won’t go into it here, but I think it is worth saying that the campaign managed not only to inform people but also change their behaviour at a massive level. It wasn’t just the campaign, of course; a desire to adhere to the protocols came from a deep fear of the virus, but that in itself is not enough to change behaviour. The instructions must be simple to follow and easy to do, and crucially, be described in such a way that positions them as the social norm.

In summary, you could do worse that to look to the Government’s public health campaign (and I aware I am probably conflating the work many different arms of the state here, from the HSE to the Department of the Taoiseach and more besides) for guidance in translating dense and jargon-filled source material into everyday language, on adapting messages to cut through fatigue, distraction, fear and a range of other emotions stopping us from taking them in, and, most usefully perhaps, on changing people’s behaviour.

Worth a read