Communication in the time of corona – Åkestam Holst on the BBC World Service

April 6

Today our colleague, strategist Karl Wikstrom, participated in an interview on the BBC World Service in the World Business Report.

The main topic was communication during the corona epidemic, and how to succeed with public awareness advertising concerning risks and danger, and the current contrast in the handling of the epidemic between Sweden and the rest of the world.

Here are the parts of the pre-interview performed by journalist Andy Jones that didn’t make it into the final interview, diving deeper into the communication insights.

Also excluded in the interview are the multiple times that we stressed that we, of course, can only speak as experts on communication, not as experts on epidemiology or the Swedish government’s strategy for dealing with the epidemic.

The attitude in Sweden vs in the UK:

The situation here has been about watching as the situation develops and acting upon it, instead of trying to act rashly without fully weighing the consequences.

The Swedish government and Ministry of Health have felt that, if you apply too draconian measures immediately, you cannot then apply them when you truly need them. It is better to rely on people’s sense of solidarity and common sense and then when we end up in an emergency, we can apply the guidance then and it has an impact.

We are seeing an appropriate level of concern here. I think there has been an effort by some international media to portray Sweden as having a carefree attitude to the epidemic but I don’t think that has been the case. You can see fewer people going out publicly to bars and restaurants – that is not because of curfew but because people are taking sensible public advice.

This has not come from advertising and public campaigns – adverts here are only serving the purpose of reaffirming what people are doing rather than leading it.

The messaging here is more about solidarity and getting people to help one another. It’s making people think about what they can do to help, not what they should not do.

On UK public health campaigning and Boris’ letter to every household:

When it comes to these sorts of public health campaigns there is a tendency for overt scare tactics to misfire. We have also seen a lot of scary adverts in the UK, we haven’t seen them in the Nordic regions, and they have a tendency to misfire for two reasons.

Firstly because, if you make advertising too threatening or too serious, the public reject it as they can’t relate to it. We see this on research on smoking adverts – if you tell people they will die, they ignore it because they can’t process their own death. But if you tell people that smoking gives you bad breath that is more effective, because the public can understand what that is like and see the impact of it to themselves.

These learning apply to the corona epidemic too – people who may not fear to get sick themselves are probably more strongly affected by messages about the risk of spreading the virus to others, thus unintentionally harming people and bringing social shame on yourself.

We also see the psychological effect knows as ”reactance” – that people are more likely to rebel against messages that they find authoritarian and reduce their freedom, than messages that ask for their willing cooperation.

The letter Boris Johnson sent to all households is probably more effective advertising. Whilst it is easy to criticise something based on the £5.8m expense, actually, that kind of effort also signals to people that this is actually something serious.

Sometimes knowing that a message like that is massive or expensive it carries a weight of its own, so even though it is easy to speculate, “Was this really necessary?” it might actually have a communication impact even more than commercials, adverts or posters.

It reinforces the gravity of the situation. It’s almost like how when a teacher gets very angry at school and raises their voice. This might become normal and easy to ignore. But, if they suddenly went very quiet you realised something grave had happened and you needed to pay full attention.

A letter is out of the ordinary – it is not every day you get a letter from the government speaking to you directly.

Scary adverts vs. Adverts which motivate:

If you carry campaigns which are too foreboding – almost “Thou shall not” – it has less effect as people rebel and pushes against it. If you appeal to people’s sense of public spirit and solidarity it has more effect – we have seen that people to rush to sign up and get involved. This you see in the UK, with half a million people signing up to help the NHS.

Giving people more negative information makes it impossible to anticipate how they will react.

At Åkestam Holst, we are currently helping multiple brands and companies to get involved in volunteer initiatives to help people who are vulnerable and isolating. One such initiative revolves around the idea of “Heroes At Home” – that what is really heroic at the moment is helping others near you and staying at home. I believe that is more effective than simply scaring people.

A positive example of good advertising is the recent Easter campaign from Region Stockholm and Vårdguiden – a simple list taking the Swedish name for Good Friday (Long Friday), and renaming every day of the Easter week Long Monday, Long Tuesday, Long Wednesday etc, followed by the brief message “No regular Easter in 2020. Keep staying at home. Thank you.”. A witty but subtle way of acknowledging our current shared alienation around the epidemic and how it impacts us all and reinforcing the idea of staying at home in a caring and humble way.

How to get the message out correctly, ie. as with social distancing:

It is critical to talk in terms people can understand. “Social distancing” is an abstract concept, what does it really mean to each person? So in Canada they are saying, “keep one hockey stick length away from each other.” People love hockey there and so it is an easy visual to grab and also one that is quite comforting during a crisis.

(This is also seen in the UK with the social media videos of Stephen Merchant and footballer Peter Crouch physically demonstrating the true distance of two metres by using their own height as a measure.)

Link: Listen here - BBC Sounds