Communicating in a Crisis

Scott Young, CEO of BVA Nudge Unit UK and Conduit member, shares five key principles from behavioural science that we can draw on to help us communicate in times of high stress.

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, organisations face an overwhelming array of communications challenges, including: providing continuing support for customers and clients; effectively reassuring customers, employees, volunteers, donors and other stakeholders; and encouraging positive new behaviours (for public safety, operations, fundraising, etc.) 

By providing insight into our thinking and decision making processes, behavioural science can help ensure that these communications are properly understood and acted upon.

To that end, I’ve shared below five guidelines (via the acronym DRESS) as a starting point for applying behavioural science learning to optimise communications and encourage positive behaviours.

1. Default

The cardinal rule or mantra of behavioural science is to “make it easy.” If you make changes as easy as possible, customers and employees will be more likely to comply. Defaults are one way to apply this in practice: for example, if you want to encourage people to use digital self-help tools (rather than overwhelmed call centres), make the digital path the default – and ensure that it is as fast and simple as possible (via one-click approaches, etc.).     

2. Reassure

While everyone is seeking reassurance, it is important to know that some well-intended messages can have unintended effects. For example, very specific references to health measures (i.e. “Our employees wash their hands every two hours”) can inadvertently raise questions and concerns (“Is every two hours often enough?”). Sometimes, it is best to remain more general (“We are following government-recommended protocols…”), while maintaining a positive, optimistic and realistic tone. For example, speaking of “when” we return to normal (rather than “if”). 

3. Empathise

Remember to convey that measures taken are for the safety and ultimate benefit of your customers, clients and employees.  They are going through a great deal right now and the focus of your messaging should be on their concerns, not on your challenges as business leaders.

4. Socialise

In this time of uncertainty, people want to feel part of a community and they take cues from the actions of others. This provides a sense of security and creates an opportunity to leverage social norms to drive positive behaviours. Thus, messaging that references others’ behaviour (“many people are donating and volunteering now, as they know that there is heightened demand”) will help encourage these positive actions. 

5. Simplify

Because a great deal of customers’ and employees’ cognitive load is occupied with safety and family issues, they will be especially distracted. In addition, they will be bombarded with messages about coronavirus right now, many of which will sound similar. This means that your comms should be as brief and functional as possible – or they will not be read.

Please reach out to if you would like further help with your crisis-related communications, as BVA Nudge Unit is assisting non-profit organisations on a pro-bono basis. 

Scott Young is the CEO of BVA Nudge Unit UK, a global consultancy specialised in driving successful behavioural change.  Scott transitioned to this role after 20+ years leading Perception Research Services (and later PRS IN VIVO), a top-25 global insights agency.  Scott is passionate about finding “win-win-win” opportunities (that benefit companies, consumers and society) – and in applying behavioural science to help individuals and organisations make better decisions and adopt more sustainable habits.

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