Hill and Knowlton Strategies Poland conducted a study that confirmed that the use of behavioral science increases the effectiveness of communicating epidemic recommendations. Based on these findings, the agency prepared and made available for free a series of posters for companies to use. H+K also launched Habits+, an offer that shapes positive habits during an epidemic.

“Wash your hands”, “Cover your mouth”, “Keep your distance” – these and other recommendations have accompanied us from the beginning of the pandemic in government communications, media and private conversations, and yet we are still far from being universally assimilated. Meanwhile, with the growing number of cases, students returning to schools, and reopening offices, public awareness is critical to reducing the spread of the coronavirus.

How Behavioural Science Helps Fight Coronavirus

The agency decided to verify how behavioral science can strengthen epidemic messages. To this end, they created five control posters modeled, as far as possible, on materials provided by the public administration.

The original posters were then modified to create two alternative versions of each. The new messages were based on behavioral heuristics, i.e. mechanisms with a proven ability to influence behavior, including:

  • framing: creating a context for the information or recommendation presented that influences the recipient’s conclusions;
  • self-relation: people are better able to remember information that is related to them or has personal meaning to them – they are much more likely to use the information because it is easier for them to remember it;
  • disgust (also known as “yuck factor”): avoiding disgusting situations, such as sneezing a stranger in the face, is a natural phenomenon that has probably developed as an
    anti-infectious disease mechanism;
  • visual cues: people by nature use visual information to make judgments about their surroundings; The more visual the cue is, the more likely people are to react to it.

In the next step, the effectiveness of the posters was tested online on July 9-13, 2020 on a representative group of 450 working Poles, through the Ariadna National Research Panel. The results of the study confirmed that the use of behavioral science mechanisms increased the effectiveness of messages. For each recommendation, the team created a poster version that met with a clearly greater, even by over 10 percentage points, compliance of the respondents to the recommended behavior. At the same time, the percentage of people declaring reluctance to comply with sanitary recommendations was reduced. Detailed research results are presented at the end of this article.

Habits+ offer for changing habits

Using the findings of behavioral sciences and experience in implementing campaigns in the public health field, Warsaw team has developed the Habits+ offer dedicated to organizations that want to adapt to a long-lasting epidemic and develop or strengthen their employees’ safety habits.

As we recover from COVID-19 – or indeed prepare for further outbreaks – the behavior change challenges evolve. Consumers and employees need to change what they do. They need to:

  • adopt new habits such as wearing face coverings in public transport.
  • sustain recent good behavior changes such as social distancing.
  • stop other behaviors, such as isolating at home and instead of returning to busy workplaces and public spaces.

Habits+ is H+K’s evidence-based approach to understanding how to create new good habits, sustain those habits over the long term, and stop unwanted habits.

Habits+ draws on evidence from previous crises, such as the SARS epidemic and the response to Hurricane Katrina, as well as a wider body of scientific evidence from health, sustainability and employee change programs.

Habits+ identifies eight ways to change habits, many of which are commonly overlooked. These are practical to apply to employee or consumer campaigns and initiatives.

To find out about the scope of the Habits+, please contact:

Katarzyna Kamińska, [email protected]

Szymon Szymczyk, [email protected]

More information is available here.

Communication built on a scientific foundation

A study of epidemic posters illustrates how the use of behavioral science can increase the effectiveness of communication efforts. At H+K, we believe that the further development of public relations and the effectiveness of services offered to clients must be based on data and solid scientific foundations. We are convinced that behavioral science is the future of PR, therefore we are developing an international team for behavioral science and strategy within the network.

Detailed research results

The prepared posters presented 5 themes of recommendations:

  • handwashing,
  • covering your face while sneezing,
  • not touching the face,
  • keeping distance,
  • limiting the number of people in the room.

The respondents looked at the poster and answered the question: “Does such a poster encourage you to follow the recommendation it contains?” When comparing the effectiveness, the results of “definitely yes” and “rather yes” as well as “definitely not” and “probably not” were summed up. Importantly, each interviewee saw only one version of each poster and could not compare them.

  • The percentage of people who responded positively to the poster about covering their mouth and nose while sneezing increased from 62% up to 69 percent in the case of a poster using the disgust effect.
  • The same was true for the “do not touch” poster – the behavioral science version increased the number of responders positively to the recommendation from 60% to 65% (the disgust poster enhanced by visual cues).
  • The vast majority of working Poles assimilated the recommendation to keep a distance, and yet the improved version of the poster, symbolically showing the coronavirus (visual cue), increased its effectiveness from 70% up to 75%.
  • Another well-learned recommendation concerns hand washing, but here too it was possible to produce a more effective message. Although the method of self-appeal increased the number of people reacting positively by only 2 percentage points (from 70% to 72%), it also reduced the number of people reluctant to comply with the recommendation by almost a half (from 11% to 6%)!
  • Similar results were obtained by posters encouraging the reduction of the number of people indoors through disgust (an increase from 61% to 72%) and framing using data on the number of Poles who suffered or died from COVID-19 (increase to 69%). These posters were also effective in reducing the number of people reluctant to comply (drop from 17% to 12%).