Coronavirus is the crescendo of behavior change evolution

Campaigns for changing behavior are implemented to prompt the public and people in authority to change their ideas, perceptions and practices through information, education, and communication.

A mall in Israel opens up after the country's third coronavirus lockdown. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A mall in Israel opens up after the country's third coronavirus lockdown.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
This decade has seen unthinkable upsurges in the creation of mobile technology and social media, completely changing how we communicate.
Communications professionals have had to quickly adapt and think digitally, including getting our heads around the age-old concept of behavior change. This steep learning trajectory has escalated dramatically during the past few years to a crescendo of immediacy, but never as much as we have seen since the beginning of the pandemic.
Campaigns for changing behavior are implemented to prompt the public and people in authority to change their ideas, perceptions and practices through information, education, and communication.

Changing behavior – Years in the making?
Traditionally, behavior and perception change would take years to implement. A mixture of advertising, promotional materials, and direct mail, alongside media and public relations, adding in some public affairs and lobbying when necessary. Together a long road but an effective tool to create the desired alteration in public attitudes.
Some perfect examples of this are the changes in the way people thought about combating drunk driving, smoking cessation and microchipping pets – three things we can hardly believe were even a consideration. Did people really not chip their dogs? Did they really think smoking was not so bad for you? And how on earth did anyone not know the dangers of getting behind the wheel after a night at the bar?

Immediate information to our devices
Social media changed everything. Communications professionals know which strategies to implement and when. “We’re targeting moms – send during the school run.” “We want to reach teenagers – get something up on TikTok.” Information is disseminated and shared through people we know, by people “like us,” from people we trust, through media we trust.
Never before has there been a time when information and sources were so readily available, leading to a phenomenon where people’s opinions are established and changed overnight. The current corona situation is the perfect example.

Managing mask perception
Like the aforementioned smoking or drunk-driving situation, it is difficult to remember a time when people were unsure about whether mask-wearing in public spaces should or should not be mandatory. A year ago, during the first round of lockdowns, people were still seen wandering the streets sans face protection, without much notice being taken. After a few short months, a strict division was created between those who were determined that masks were useless for fending off infection and those who would openly name-and-shame, with images of “mask-less” offenders and uncovered noses flying across social media. Regardless of opinion, a mixture of media, government policy and communal mentality has led to the majority of people covering up to protect themselves, or at least to project the appearance that they want to – whether in a show of solidarity or for fear of reprisal.

Thinking about vaccinations
The buzz word of 2021 is undoubtedly “vaccinations.” Who’s getting them and when? Are they safe? Will they relieve us of our isolation? With varying cultural responses to various countries’ rollout status, many attitudes toward COVID-19 vaccinations have had a literal overnight shift - from one of suspicion, fear, and uncertainty to that of desperation to get your first or second shot as quickly as possible.
Governments and media implemented targeted behavior-change tactics, which spread globally across social media and online news services within seconds. Naysayers from every corner of the Earth started to change their minds on December 8 as they watched 91-year-old Margaret Keenen from Coventry, UK, receive the first coronavirus vaccination, almost with the same wonder and joy as watching Neil Armstrong take his “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” during the televised 1969 moon landing.
Simultaneously, more traction was made to change perception and build public confidence, when world leaders and religious figures were photographed and filmed receiving the vaccine to ensure that people felt at ease to do the same. Footage and imagery landed on devices of concerned members of the public, with the desired effect taking shape instantaneously.

A shift in trust
Behavior-change campaigns have always been about creating a conversation and forming the appropriate narrative. Historically, this was discussing what somebody read in the paper, saw on the news, or heard on the radio. Later, this would extend to what your friend said, mom thought, or hairdresser brought up in conversation.
Nowadays, we rely on a mysterious, incomprehensible algorithm to choose the people we should believe – people “like me” – whether a Facebook acquaintance from yesteryear or indeed a complete stranger. We swim in a sea of “influencers” with no professional background or qualifications in certain subjects, who are able to sway public opinion with one blog post, tweet or YouTube release.

Overcoming communications quandaries
For communications and reputation management professionals, it leads to somewhat of a quandary. How can we maintain our narrative in this cybersphere of chaos, with the constant noise of notifications, tweets, posts, and videos bleeping on our devices, from the moment we wake up to the time we lay our heads? How can we break into these self-created digital echo-chambers of vindication and validation, where an alternative view is met with vehement disagreement, unreliable sources, contradiction, and even intolerance?
Of course, with many things there is no one-size-fits-all solution. What we must do as disseminators of information is to ensure that we reach people using reliable sources, trusted influencers and top-notch, provable facts. We need to create concrete yet accessible messaging and know our target audiences.
There will always be people attempting to discount or disprove the message that we put out into the world, so with solid preparation and strategy, and contingency planning around potential obstacles, at least we can be ready.

The writer is CEO of Percepto, an international online communications and reputation management agency based in Tel Aviv.