Not your average campaign

Running an effective public awareness campaign to curb the spread of the pandemic is a challenge that requires the government to innovate

Owing to the tremendous spike in coronavirus patients since the Supreme Court of Pakistan instructed the administration to completely lift the lockdown, Federal and provincial governments are now considering reinforcing lockdown. At the time of lifting, the government also decided to launch an aggressive advertisement drive convincing the public to follow the social distancing approach, keep masks on while being out for work, and abide by all other SOPs (standard operating procedures).

The media campaign comprising awareness messages during-and-after the lockdown are emphasising social and behaviour change. Certainly, social and behavior change can help manage attitudes, perceptions, and practices concerning health. However, the challenge is amplified when the campaign is designed to curb the spread of a pandemic.

Sohail Riaz Rajah, an advertising researcher and the head of Media Studies COMSATS, believes that the campaign leaves a lot to be desired. “It is yet another campaign by the government that could not register a single signature line that could become the ‘talk of town’ and a strong motivator for the masses”, he states.

He reiterates the effective role advertisements can play in creating awareness and motivating people, but says that the current government campaign has “failed to bring the expected outcome”.

In Rajah’s view, the government’s campaign seemed to tap into “fear rather than to convince people to alter their social behaviour. Advertisements for such an issue should be full of information, awareness, clarity, and motivation but without escalating the level of stress and fear”, he explains.

Going by prevailing violation of SOPs in public places, markets and shopping malls, and the alarming spike in patients, it can be said that incessant appeals for abiding by these protocols through media campaigns have not been able to play the role in social and behaviour change.

“Awareness campaigns for social and behaviour change must be a true reflection of political leadership; if not, you are just investing money in a futile exercise”, Rajah adds.

In the post-lockdown awareness campaign, many renowned showbiz personalities are playing the role of ambassadors by modelling behaviour desired under coronavirus safety guidelines. This can help support and encourage audiences to modify their behaviour.

“Changing behaviour may mean changing long-standing habits. Behaviour, the product of individual or collective action, is a key determinant of people’s health,” says Professor Dr Muhammad Zakir Zikria, a sociologist and the former vice chancellor of University of the Punjab.

He says that the positive outcome of such campaigns “heavily banks on the support of public, also, it is important to identify effective approaches and strategies that motivate change and sustain newly-adopted healthy behaviours”.

He underlines the challenge of bringing about social and behavioural change through conventional approaches in a society where there is a specific complex web of societal factors to grapple with when the aim is to address health-related public awareness messaging. While media campaigns are important for educating and informing the public by providing direct advice and information, these campaigns are based on the assumptions that people lack knowledge (of what they should be doing) and that improving knowledge changes attitude, creating the desire to change.

“Behavioural change is generally best served by a mix of interventions, delivered over a long period of time and modified in response to measured impact. Thus, it is unrealistic to expect any kind of social and behaviour change, in the current situation, from the society that is more inclined to superstitions than to scientific approaches”, he adds.

Rizwan Safdar, a sociologist, agrees that it is rarely sufficient to change behaviour through conventional media campaigns only. He emphasises the role leadership with a “simple and unblemished action plan to follow” can play to make public service messaging more effective during the pandemic.

“A dynamic leadership is considered a fundamental and powerful driver of social and behaviour change in societies like ours. It is evident in many examples internationally that leaders matter in the process of change because change needs to be led: The relevance of leaders is, indeed, more prominent when things are undergoing change, that is, when ‘uncertainty’ prevails and stability is threatened.”

It is unfortunate that our leadership not only appears confused in chalking out a clear route to follow for the public since the first corona case popped up but also unable to opt for an effective approach to make the public realise the intensity of this killer virus. The tussle between federal and provincial governments has further created space for public to go according to their own choice. Therefore, people are not bothered to alter their social behaviour and embedded unhealthy practices.”

The writer is a staff member. He can be reached at [email protected]

Not your average campaign: Running a public awareness campaign to curb coronavirus is a challenge