The Precarious Balancing Act Of Government Behaviour Change Communications

The Precarious Balancing Act Of Government Behaviour Change Communications
B&T Magazine
Edited by B&T Magazine

In this opinion piece, Ken Chan (pictured), VMLY&R Melbourne’s head of strategy, discusses how to create impactful government communicationss.

Pandemic life has certainly introduced some weird and wonderful ways to pass the time in (and in between) lockdowns. And it seems that picking apart the latest government campaigns is becoming a particularly favourite pastime for many. In fact, it’s probably up there with panic buying toilet paper and walking in circles around a park.

COVID-19 has prompted us all to reassess the way we act and behave, for the safety of ourselves and others. The sheer volume and frequency of government campaigns in-market has shown that governments are feeling the pressure to take a more visible (and vocal) role in this effort. However, in such an emotionally- and politically-charged environment – finding the balance between informing, educating and mandating has only become more challenging.

In Australia, the lack of a timely national vaccination strategy and campaign was disappointing. When the campaign finally came it was deemed lacklustre at best, and was widely scrutinised by the Australian public.

If these campaigns fall short, the impact on the broader community can be disastrous. It is therefore important that they are scrutinised, so that the government can understand what messaging will elicit a positive behavioural change.


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The good news is that it looks  like we are turning a corner with these campaigns. As vaccination appointments have opened up to the wider population, we have seen recent campaigns by government, brand and even our own industry (NSW Government – ‘Let’s do this’, Qantas – ‘Be Rewarded’, @TheFactsination – ‘The A to Z of things more likely to kill you than the AZ’) go to market with really positive public reception.

At VMLY&R, our partnership with government clients such as the Department of Transport (DoT) and Major Transport & Infrastructure Authority (MTIA) extends to public service announcements that are geared to address, amend or reinforce safety behaviours of Victorians in and around public transport and infrastructure.

Recently, we launched three behavioural change campaigns for DoT – Level Crossings, Trams Wayside and Safe Travel Behaviours – which focus on promoting a safe return to public transport for patrons, motorists and pedestrians following disrupted routines during COVID-19.

I won’t lie: the ever-changing circumstances of COVID-19 meant the road to market was riddled with its fair share of false-starts, revisions and uncertainty. So, at the risk of sounding like “it’s not the destination, but the journey and friends we made along the way” – I wanted to reflect on what we can learn about the demands on government communications in our current landscape.

  1. Focus on the action, not the actor.

Government-led social behaviour change campaigns are often trying to illicit a degree of self-awareness from the public – the sense that personal responsibility must be taken and a different behaviour demonstrated for the personal and greater good of the community.

But figuring out how to best do this without finger-pointing or (worse) victim blaming when addressing the behaviour change is absolutely crucial. In the world of government-led behaviour change, the focus needs to centre on actions and consequences, rather than “good vs. bad” people.

  1. Be firm but fair.

Building on from the previous point, behaviour change executions need to elicit an acknowledgement that something the audience is currently doing must be either stopped or started. And the trick is, these reasons often have a higher degree of selflessness attached. We are essentially telling the public to “do this thing that may not benefit you directly, but is best for the community” – which doesn’t rank too highly on the “what’s in it for me?” front.

This is where tone can have a major impact on receptivity. Be too passive and you risk being either forgotten. Go too hard, and you risk being remembered for the wrong reasons. While the tactics are varied – some communications induce guilt, others amplify the personal benefits – effective and enduring government behaviour change campaigns need to strike the right balance to help the audience understand and agree with the desired change.

  1. Creativity isn’t a risk, it’s a weapon.

In a crowded and noisy environment, it’s so easy to be drowned out, misunderstood, or totally ignored. And in the world of government, the “PR gaff” is always lurking over every campaign. So the urge to play it safe is incredibly strong.

But, guess what? Creativity is what makes the difference in an audience remembering your message. According to super-smart people that I often rely on to look competent, “47% of the effect of advertising comes from the creative” (Nielson Catalina Solutions, 2017). Sure, things like targeting, reach and product fit matter – but creativity is not just the “secret sauce” that makes your campaign effective… it’s half the burger.

So when you’re facing the temptation to play it safe, lean into creativity and remember that it’s the most potent lever you can pull for campaign effectiveness. Don’t believe me? Then just ask yourself if you’d know what to do if I told you to ‘Slip, Slop, Slap’… or what not to do to avoid being called a ‘bloody idiot.’



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