Ethics and the use of fear in crisis communication

About the author

Chris is a lecturer, media trainer, crisis communication consultant and coach. Her in-house roles have included the global position of Director of PR for Barclays. Chris leads the CIPR PR Diploma and Crisis Comms Diplomas. BA Hons, CAM, MCIPR

Campaign by MullenLowe for NHS
Campaign by MullenLowe for NHS

Public relations can be seen as a way of bringing about behavioural change.  We are seeking to influence people to make a certain decision.  It might be persuading people to buy a product or service; it might be around securing a vote; it might be helping people make healthy choices about how they live their lives; or in a crisis it might be getting people to respond quickly and significantly to an unfolding dangerous situation such leaving your home for a place of safety.

Given that a typical adult makes around 35,000 decisions a day in response to various communications, us PR professionals are always on the lookout for techniques that will give our communications the cut through required when there is such competition for attention.  Especially when we believe lives are at stake.

Like many PR professionals I have been fascinated by the insights psychology can provide us with when we are looking to make our communications more effective.  I hadn’t been lecturing long on PR when I came across the work of Robert Cialdini whose book “Influence – the psychology of persuasion” opened my eyes as to how principles such as social proof (the desire to look to others when making a decision about how to behave) or consistency (securing a small commitment from someone makes it harder for them to refuse a bigger one down the line) can be used when crafting messages to get a desired response.

But I must confess I always felt a little queasy when discussing these concepts with my students.  Out loud it did sound as if writers such as Cialdini were advocating the use of psychology to circumvent a normal rational response.  It certainly raised ethical questions.

Nevertheless, the psychology bandwagon was up and running and in 2010 we saw the creation by the then David Cameron-led Conservative Government of the Behavioural Insights Team which became better known as the Nudge Unit.

The Nudge Unit sought to use psychological insights to improve the communication needed to achieve public policy objectives.  One of the Unit’s most celebrated campaigns was to increase the number of applicants to join the police from ethnic minorities.  The Nudge team reworded an email sent to all candidates that congratulated them on passing the previous application stage to include a request for them to “take more time to think about why you want to be a police constable” before moving on to the next part of the process.

The change had no impact on white applicants but 50% more BME candidates continued the process after the email was revised in this way.  It was thought some BME applicants could previously have been trying to respond to the test in a way they thought a white applicant would, but the new email encouraged them to trust their own instincts and think about why they wanted to join the police in the first place and the difference they hoped to make.  Most of us would agree this is a worthy use of this type of technique but has Nudge always been used in an ethical way?

Back in 2020 an All-Party Parliamentary Group was extremely critical of the Behavioural Insights Team.  The Team had helped HMRC with a campaign to recover unpaid tax from freelance workers who had used a loan scheme to manage their tax liabilities.  It was controversial to say the least that HMRC thought they had the right to recover the tax at all but putting that aside the All-Party Parliamentary Group called for an independent inquiry looking at the use of behavioural insights in the communications approach taken towards the freelancers.  It was noted that several suicides had been recorded.

Which brings us to the current criticism of the use of fear orchestrated by behavioural scientists in the UK Government’s response to the Covid-19 crisis.  Criticism of this approach was well-documented in Laura Dodsworth’s book “A State of Fear: How the UK Government weaponised fear during the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Fear can be seen as the ultimate message accelerant.  It has the ultimate cut through as it plays to the basic human instinct to survive.

It may look pretty easy at first to scare people into acting a certain way, but there are a number of reasons why this approach may not work.  Witte’s model on the use of fear says that to be effective a fear appeal must indeed by truly frightening to the target audience and must be accompanied by arguments showing how the target audience are themselves personally susceptible.

One of the behavioural scientists that advised the Government during the Covid crisis told Ms Dodsworth when she was researching her book: “In March [2020] the Government was very worried about compliance and they thought people wouldn’t want to be locked down. There were discussions about fear being needed to encourage compliance, and decisions were made about how to ramp up the fear. The way we have used fear is dystopian.

“The use of fear has definitely been ethically questionable. It’s been like a weird experiment. Ultimately, it backfired because people became too scared.” Certainly, there is evidence to suggest the British population was one of the most frightened in the world during the Covid-19 crisis and the scars on the mental health of many are all too obvious to us now.

The advice to the Government from the behavioural scientists during the Covid crisis to increase “the perceived level of personal threat” reads like use was made of the Witte model.  We will have to wait for the public enquiry into the Government’s response to the Covid crisis to really discover whether this level of fear was in any way warranted and to what extent it interfered with people’s ability to make their own rational decisions.

Dealing with any crisis presents ethical choices to be made.  Ensuring everyone impacted is treated fairly.  A duty of care towards victims.  The requirement to accept responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions (and those of the organisation.)  There is also an ethical obligation to provide access to information so citizens can make reasoned and rational choices about significant issues.  Behavioural scientists are quite open about their aim to “bend the choice architecture.”  We must examine how ethically appropriate this objective can be in something as serious as a pandemic or indeed any future crisis.

Crisis Communication Hub

Join the Crisis Communication Hub

Gain free access to quarterly webinars, case studies, expert analysis and book reviews.

Sign up to receive alerts about the next crisis webinar.