To Build a Culture of Preparedness, Design a Journey that People Want to Follow
When a hurricane hits, people think about disaster planning. But most of the time, hurricanes or natural disasters feel like they apply to other people.
Public campaigns can succeed in raising broad awareness of an issue without necessarily having the desired impact on public behavior. Insights from behavioral science research inform four key principles for designing messages that stimulate desired action:
Target and tailor the proposed path for specific audiences
Include specific calls to action to explicitly ask recipients to embark on a change journey
Develop an overarching theory of change that explains how people will realistically move from status quo to target state
Methodically select the right messengers that act as trusted guides and fellow travelers
With National Preparedness Month taking place in September and #hurricaneflorence still causing flooding, public authorities and their private sector partners across the country have a prominent platform from which to affect change. By applying these four key elements to preparedness messaging, emergency management stakeholders can drive sustainable change and help build a national culture of resilience.
It is easy for public campaigns to cast the widest possible net since the marginal costs of adding more recipients or viewers are small. However, different groups can react differently to the same exact message, and one-size-fits-all approaches often lose the compelling details that make them resonate. A narrative that lacks focus in its intended audience typically also lacks focus in its message.
The better approach is to identify a small number of key audiences and communicate to them through deliberately chosen calls to action that offer the ‘nudge’ needed to take preparedness actions. By using Design Thinking techniques to empathize with their experiences, motivations, and needs, emergency management partners can craft messages that bring targeted audiences through a journey that spurs desired behaviors and leads to aspirational outcomes. The U.S. Forest Service’s decades-long Smokey Bear campaign serves as a famous example: annual forest fire impacts went down from an average of 30 million acres nationally in the 1940s to less than 10 million by 1988.
Turning an outcome into a feasible destination at the end of a realistic journey requires a logical, rigorous, and testable theory of change. Before going live, campaign planners should model each step in the audience journey from the status quo:
How does the audience gain exposure to the message? Are conditions favorable?
How do intended recipients decode the message? Do they understand what the message asks of them?
Does the target audience have the ability and willingness to act on the message? Does the message make them more likely to embark on the journey?
If the messenger asks the audience to go out of their way to recognize a call to action, take extra effort to understand it, and then perform heroic feats to achieve the outcome, then what sounds too good to be true, probably is.
Finally, no matter how many times we’ve heard the axiom of not judging a book by its cover, the messenger matters just as much as the message. Each key audience must have reason to trust who is doing the telling before they buy into what they’re told. With a topic as personal and sensitive as readiness in the face of disaster, credibility and personal resonance are not merely nice-to-haves – they are critical to the success of the campaign.
Arc Aspicio is passionate about promoting public preparedness. In fact, we won the 2010 DHS Small Business of the Year Award for our support for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Ready Campaign. We realize our own resilience journey by providing an annual emergency preparedness benefit to every employee to invest in emergency supplies and help encourage them to develop family emergency plans. Based on its success, we recommend that everyone similarly committed to preparedness use the behavioral science principles found here to design a journey that works for them.
About Arc Aspicio
Arc Aspicio is a management, strategy, and technology consulting firm that takes a mission-oriented approach to complex client challenges. Focused on innovation, Arc Aspicio provides services in strategy, design, human capital, operations, analytics and visualization, technology, and information sharing. The company is known for a strong, collaborative culture that values gratitude, provides leadership opportunities, and explores the future. Our teams use a human-centered approach to working with clients and are flexible and responsive within dynamic Government client environments that often have new priorities and evolving missions. We thrive on these situations and promote continuous improvement and new ideas. And, #welovedogs! Follow us on Twitter @arcaspicio or learn more at www.arcaspicio.com.