Rapid Review COVID-19 Communications

coronavirus molecule on top of a map of the world

1. Summary

In support of federal response efforts, Impact Canada has analysed over 125 sources of information to gain insights on what is working in COVID-19 communication campaigns and policy responses internationally, as well as what has been effective during past epidemics. By applying a behavioural science lens to messaging and design components of COVID-19 communications materials, we can help maximize their accuracy and effectiveness in promoting the desired health and response behaviours (e.g., hand washing and physical distancing).

In a time where the individual and collective actions of Canadians is critically important to reducing the spread of the virus, communications materials need to reflect our best understanding of human behaviour.

2. About Impact Canada

Impact Canada is part of a comprehensive set of initiatives launched by the Government of Canada in 2017 aimed at solving complex policy challenges using challenge prizes, pay-for-success, and behaviourally based models. Impact Canada enables the use of challenge prizes through a set of flexible Terms and Conditions (Ts&Cs) for Grants and Contributions that allow funding to be linked to outcomes achieved as well as funding rigorous, research based evaluations.

The Impact and Innovation Unit at the Privy Council Office helps departments develop innovative funding opportunities that bring together the best ideas and brightest talent, and reward those organizations and individuals that deliver high impact results for Canadians.

3. About Behavioural Science

The Behavioural Science (BeSci) team was established in 2015, and has been growing the practive of BeSci across the Government of Canada. Today, the team is composed of a a central group of researchers housed in the Privy Council Office, and multiple BeSci Impact Canada Fellows who are embedded within various Government of Canada departments, supporting the integration of BeSci insights and methods into priority program and policy areas.

While our team members have diverse academic backgrounds and an array of methodological specialities, we all share a passion for understanding human behaviour and using that understanding to drive change. Combining our knowledge of the literature with cutting-edge research and experimentation practice is what we do best.

3.1 Our approach: The behavioural design process

We are data-driven and evidence-based. Testing is integral to how we work. We conduct high-quality research to understand behaviour, and use a variety of rigorous experimental and quasi-experimental approaches to test - and scale - effective solutions.

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    Our projects often follow a multi-stage process, which we tailor to fit the needs and contexts of each project and partner.

    1 Identify

    • Consult with departmental leadership to identify priority target outcomes of interest and key behaviours to target
    • Discuss current approaches and additional opportunities for innovation

    2 Understand

    • Conduct initial research (e.g. literature scans, stakeholder interviews) to inform hypotheses of drivers and barriers to behaviours
    • Conduct additional mixed-methods research (e.g. interviews, observations, surveys, and analysis of administrative data) to test hypotheses

    3 Design

    • Ideate solutions for confirmed hypotheses, referencing the behavioural science literature
    • Present prototypes of solutions to partners for feedback
    • Iterate to refine solutions and prepare priority solutions for testing

    4 Test

    • Prepare plans for experimental or quasi-experimental tests of solutions and analysis of results
    • Implement solutions in line with testing plan
    • Collect data
    • Analyse and present results

    5 Scale

    • Prepare plans for scaling (e.g. for broad dissemination of results, preparing policy memos, and supporting other key stakeholders to adapt and adopt provides solutions)
    • Support plan execution

4. Key insights

To help maximize the accuracy and effectiveness of communications materials in Canada, Impact Canada reviewed over 125 sources to rapidly garner insights on what is working in COVID-19 communications campaigns and policy responses internationally, as well as what has been effective during past epidemics more broadly.

The following key themes and additional considerations were identified:

4.1 Demonstrating Efficacy

Contextualized experimental evidence (i.e., tested as COVID response)

In crisis situations, people are more likely to engage in the desired behaviour if:

  1. they think the infection would cause severe illness for them,
  2. the behaviour is perceived as effective,
  3. the behaviour is perceived as having few costs/barriers,
  4. they believe they could perform the behaviour if they wanted to.

4.2 Evoking Emotional Responses

Contextualized experimental evidence (i.e., tested as COVID response)

Emotions are strong drivers of behaviour. Used with care and coupled with advice about protective actions, evoking an emotional response can amplify messaging efforts.

4.3 Emphasizing Collective Action, Altruism/Moral Responsibility and Civic Duty

Behavioural science literature on crisis communication

Emphasizing that self- isolating and physical distancing are altruistic choices in that they help keep each other safe - especially vulnerable populations - can drive compliance in times of public health pandemic, as can communicating gratitude for supporting greater social good.

4.4 Making Social Norms Salient

Behavioural science literature on crisis communication

We conform to normative information about other people’s current attitudes and behaviors. Ads should build strong norms around protective behaviours, making them seem normal and expected by making unseen behaviours more visible and leveraging dynamic norms (i.e., information about how other people’s behavior is changing over time).

4.5 Emphasizing Adaptiveness and Instilling a Sense of Control to Support Mental Health

Public health literature on strategic communication during pandemics/epidemics

Uncertainty and loss of control while in self-isolation have been suggested as possible drivers of negative mental health outcomes. Ads should provide support to the general public to effectively cope with quarantine and isolation, including practical advice on seeking help, maintaining a routine, exercising at home, combating boredom, and engaging with loved ones virtually.

4.6 Addressing pandemic fatigue

Public health literature on strategic communication during pandemics/epidemics

However unwarranted, perceived severity of the pandemic may decrease over time, leading willingness to perform protective behaviours or comply with other public health advice to also decrease among the general population. It is important for ads to acknowledge and reinforce long-term effort and temporal framing, as appropriate, to combat potential “pandemic fatigue”.

5. Sources

  1. Behavioural science literature on crisis communication, as well as public health literature on strategic communication during epidemics;
  2. Rigorous experimental data from international messaging trials (e.g., UK, Ireland) that tested public perceptions of COVID-19 communication materials, as well as the psychological mechanisms likely driving their efficacy; and,
  3. PCO’s internal behavioural science expertise, as well as insights from a global community of academics, practitioners, and experts actively applying a behavioural lens to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This rapid review was written by Impact Canada and originally published on April 1st, 2020.