Wartime Britain gave the world the greatest piece of crisis comms. We need to repeat that experience now the UK is in lockdown.
Dig For Victory
“Dig For Victory” was a short, simple, inspiring and empowering message. More than any other WWII comms, Dig For Victory gave the public a sense of control over their own destiny – even if that control was still a little limited for obvious reasons.
This matters in a crisis because people panic when they feel scared and helpless. We thus throw ourselves at improving our chances of survival by even a tiny percent. And if we aren’t pointed towards actions that improve our survival chances, we will likely try other things that unknowingly make us more likely to die. Like panic-buying.
This is, unfortunately, exactly what we’ve seen in the UK. Without clear direction we’ve seen a panic-stricken public ransacking supermarket shelves. This creates large crowds and repeated trips, helping viruses spread. It also leaves NHS staff at greater risk of infection when trying to feed their families – thus reducing every single person’s chance of surviving this pandemic – including the panic-buyer.
For all the hand-wringing over panic-buying, however, we cannot blame people for being scared and panicky. Heroes in folklore and pop culture stare danger in the face, but they are heroes because that is rare. Humans are panicky animals by nature. So if our leaders fail to ease the panic, that is a failure at the top to understand that helpless human beings seek the fallacy of control.
And lockdown just made things even more scary for many.
We see this same effect in many eating disorder and self harm cases. Many sufferers are people who have struggled with other aspects of life being beyond their control. Be it abuse, bullying or something else, controling what “I” eat or when “I” feel pain, is a powerful impulse even though it fixes nothing that was wrong. It is one thing “I” can control, and that is sometimes sufficient motivation within human instinct.
Dig For Victory reflected this instinct brilliantly. It did not remove fear from anyone’s life. Instead it managed that fear. It harnessed human instinct to try to add a degree of control in a frightening situation, directing our instincts towards an action that marginally improved the chances of surviving, instead of reducing them.
Apply This To Coronavirus
While Government Comms on Coronavirus have so far been disastrous, we must acknowledge that that is a problem born of 2016’s disregard of expertise, not 2020 efforts.
Meanwhile, the rest of us still have the power to help.
We can ditch complex and unspecific phrases like “isolating” and “social distancing”, and start repeating simple slogans using words the public know.
And those slogans should direct the public to real survival actions. For example:
Stop Smoking Now!
Coronavirus attacks the lungs. Switching from fags to gum, even for a few weeks, might keep you alive!
Exercise With YouTube
Regular exercise improves your immune system. So do a daily YouTube workout.
Give to Charity
The homeless and impoverished can’t quarantine, but they can get ill and spread it just like you. So donate!
Feel ill? Quarantine Yourself
Your family will thank you, and so will our NHS.
(Please note, normal people don’t “show symptoms” or “self-isolate”? We “get ill” and understand “quarantine”.
Work From Home
A million Britons have Coronavirus now. So every bus, train and workplace has it!
These are examples rather than a campaign, but people need such help finding actions that boost their survival chances instead of reduce them. And WWII shows us how to do that when everything suddenly gets scary.
* Added context. Panic buying isn’t just a term for shops running out of stuff. In Zimbabwe a few years back shops ran out because there was not enough food for its population. So queuing for food was rational, not panic-buying. The UK, however, has enough for everyone.