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How to use behavioural science in public health campaigns so you are not accidentally a nanny-state communicator!

behavioural science campaigns com_b e.a.s.t marketing public health social norms Sep 08, 2023

Public health campaigns have been labelled as nanny-state for as long as I can remember. Which is a long time ( I've been delivering campaigns over 15 years!) Whether it is smoking, winter pressures, alcohol, diet - what ever the subject - the criticism will flow.


My work email about flu jabs was front page of the local newspaper 😱


One particularly difficult year, when NHS manager bashing was in full swing, to my horror my email discussing a shortage of flu jabs was plastered across the front page of the local newspaper. The purpose was to denigrate the flu vaccination programme.

And yes, I ran the press office.

And yes, I did think I had a good working relationship with the local paper.

And yes, it was back in the days when phones were on desks and yes did it ring!

You can imagine my horror when I picked up the papers. No warning.


But if I am honest we were still stuck in 'information mode'. Where we figured if everyone simply 'knew' about the dangers of flu they would rush to get their vaccine. It was free after all!


Lets stop the 'how to quit smoking campaigns'.....


"Let's stop the 'how to quit smoking campaigns' and shift the money to..."

This was a constant conversation locally, regionally and nationally. We had to demonstrate the value of the campaigns to secure investment in the next one.

We had to shift from awareness to action and it was this need that drove the shift in campaigns away from nanny-state to behaviour change.

We had to prove our worth, show the impact and keep stakeholders onboard.

Ultimately the shift was from telling people they should stop smoking and they should NHS services to do so, to, segmenting, targeting and planning the best strategy for the different audiences but it would never have happened if we weren't constantly future proofing our efforts. 

What work needs are driving you? 

The desire to avoid being labelled 'nanny-state' is real. 

But the desires of every comms lead I know to make a difference and help people is greater.


Behavioural science in public health is like a duck to water.

Behavioural science is here for you to use...if you want it.

It is how you can shift from information sharing, raising awareness to actual behaviour change will reduce the criticism but increase the impact.

So in less than 10 seconds what is it?

Behavioural science explores decision making. The frameworks ask you to understand why people do what they do and they insist you consider the context and the role of the environment. It pulls together many academic disciplines including neuroscience, cognitive psychology and behavioural economics.

Context is everything.


Public health in less than 10 seconds...

Public health is population based management. It looks beyond the person at the wider determinants also exploring environment, community, social norms. It's not about just about the NHS. It's about us. Family, community, society. That is why our Directors of Public Health sit in our local government and not  the NHS.  

Context is everything.

If you agree with the idea that the best public health campaigns will stem from a deep understanding of the decisions and determinants surrounding the behavioural challenge then behavioural science is the way to go.

It is a duck to water.

But where do you start?


COM-B, Stages of Change & behavioural biases where do you start?

The Behavioural Science field has experienced a supercharged growth so knowing which framework to use and when can be overwhelming. There is simply so much to learn in the field of public health, the behavioural science field as well as keeping up with communications, PR and the various disciplines within marketing = the overwhelm can simply stop the use of the insight and we subconsciously revert back to status quo..


Diagnose and Design

We recommend you think of the planning stage of a campaign as a 'diagnosis' stage where you explore, consider and clarify the challenge and measurable goals. So you are then ready to start designing the intervention and writing the copy. This means 

  • not skipping to content
  • not skipping to creative
  • not skipping to messaging

And that's the rub! 

Because that is our status quo. 

So when we start using behavioural science what we are actually doing is changing our work behaviours too!

So is it worth it?


Just because we don't often do the insight and the problem framing that is not because we don't want to!

Every communicator I know wants to do this work but external pressures prevent it.

That's why getting started is so important - knowing which bit of behavioural science you can get started with - get good at - is the key.

The good news.

You can get started for free and and quickly.


Help to get you started using behavioural science - fun quiz!

To help you get started USING behavioural science  we designed a 60-second quiz. It puts behavioural science in context of your work. So the questions are ABOUT YOU! 

So you can use it to achieve your work goals and pinpoint which parts of behavioural science YOU need and when.

Make these tools WORK FOR YOU!


Plus free workshop 19th September - via zoom - limited spaces

Bring your challenge or campaign to identify what bit of behavioural science you need and where.

You will be doing work on the call. This isn't a passive webinar watch!

So before you go deep into what COM_B is, which behavioural bias fits where take a moment to plan where YOU are.

What is your behavioural challenge. What are your goals so you can identify HOW behavioural science can help you!

Without doing this upfront work - which you can do in 15 minutes - you're simply putting a jigsaw together - without the jigsaw picture on the front of the box!


Register here


Photo by Prateek Katyal on Unsplash