LONDON – Appealing to people’s good nature and sense of community are the most effective ways to communicate crucial public health messages, including preventing stockpiling food and other essentials in response to Covid-19.

Research undertaken by Hill+Knowlton Strategies aimed to identify the most effective ways to land the UK Government’s public health messages during the current crisis.

The agency’s behavioural science unit tested a series of messages with a nationally representative sample of 1,000 members of the UK public.

In advance of the most recent government guidance on working from home and closing pubs, restaurants, bars and theatres, respondents were asked whether they had already stockpiled food or other goods. At the time of the survey, two thirds (68%) said they were not stockpiling.

Showing people that others were not stockpiling was found to be reassuring, and meant they were 20% less likely to stockpile themselves, compared to the message that instructed them not to.

The research also tested messages on handwashing, face-touching and self-isolation. It found the campaign from the National Health Service (NHS) has been effective in raising awareness of the importance of handwashing regularly for 20 seconds. However, the researcher found that the impact could be further enhanced by using messages that explain how washing your hands helps others as well as yourself (up from 54% to 62%).

The most effective messages on self-isolation stressed how doing so can protect your family. This was 10 percentage points more effective than when people were provided with more extensive information.

For face-touching, providing facts – such as advice to touch your face with a tissue rather than hands – was substantially less effective (nine percentage points) in changing behaviour than suggesting how to help your family.

Dan Berry, Head of H+K’s behavioural science unit, said: “The outcome of the research gives us a reason to be positive. The UK public are responding to Covid-19 better than some of the media coverage and social media conversation would have us believe. The public are most likely to follow public health advice when they understand it isn’t just about protecting themselves but protecting their loved ones and community.

“Words matter; through this crisis we need to communicate with impact, so the public understands and supports actions to slow the spread of the virus. The precise language we use, and who the messages come from, can make a big difference in moving people from awareness to action.”