Behavioural science has always been of serious interest to the marketing sector and – of course to the world of politics. But its theories have taken on particular importance in recent months with the spread of the coronavirus and an international lockdown.
One such theory has been notably employed in the UK to influence the public to practice social distancing, self isolation and ultimately lockdown. Nudge Theory was first brought to prominence by US Academics Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their 2008 book “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness.”
It articulates tactics that influences not through enforcement, but by presenting a “choice architecture” that nudges people towards adopting a behaviour that can benefit them and not significantly impact them economically. Humans respond better to being coaxed rather than being coerced.
COVID-19 has – of course – caused a significant change to people’s everyday lives. But the threat to lives positioned against the inconvenience of lockdown, softened by mortgage holidays and support for furloughed employees schemes makes the choicer easier.
Similarly, the current arrangements were not brought in wholesale and nor are the timelines stretching months into the future. There has been light kept just ahead of us in the tunnel.
We – the UK public – have been nudged along gradually from voluntary restrictions to the over 70s self isolating to the urgings over non-essential travel and on to lockdown.
The lockdown was to be reviewed after Easter and now we are moving towards an unspecified date. But still we are nudged along with daily Government updates supported by consistent messaging and any developments will be gradual. Nudge, nudge and say no more.
Two Devon organisations, two serious public relations crises, one winner, one loser.
Brixham’s Churston Ferrers Grammar was forced to close its doors after one of its pupils tested positive for coronavirus. Meanwhile, the county’s foremost professional sports club Exeter Chiefs rugby team saw the collapse of one of the team’s sponsors Flybe.
Now, typically, Devon is no hot bed of hard news. But coronavirus and the failure of Exeter-based Flybe were two rare ‘watercooler’ talking points in the region.
The school closed for a week, commissioned a deep clean of the school site and activated a plan for that deployed technology allowing students to be taught remotely. Students have since returned and those in self isolation are still able to attend lesson ‘virtually’.
The development attracted rare national news and inevitably the buzz of social media from concerned parents. But the reception was overwhelmingly positive.
What came across was an organisation that was decisive, professional, prepared, put the health of students first, but also minimised impact on pupils’ education. Although the media perception would not have been the school’s priority, what could have been a disaster was a PR triumph.
Contrast with Exeter Chiefs, a highly regarded institution in Devon, who turned away Flybe staff at the turnstiles for their game against Bath, despite them holding apparently valid tickets.
The airline had, earlier in the week collapsed and left 2,000 people out of work. So, the commercial arrangements between Exeter Chiefs and long-term sponsor Flybe were void. But did it really mean that newly unemployed staff should have a bad week worsened?
It’s understandable that an automated system might have triggered the rejection of the Flybe tickets. But could common sense not prevail when the affected staff queried the club reception? No was the answer.
To compound matters, after two days of silence and with ample time to reflect, the Chiefs Chairman Tony Rowe described the decision as “commercial” and complained that the club was “not a charity”. Unsurprisingly, it was poorly received on both mass media and social media channels.
Sports clubs are widely seen as symbols of the community and their success largely depends upon this image – they represent their areas and the people within it. It is difficult to assess the long-term reputational effect on both Churston Ferrers and Exeter Chiefs, but the lingering associations will be one that put the community first and one that put finance first.