The Role of Social and Behavioural Research in Strategic Communications


In our Zoom for Thought on October 20th, 2020, UCD Discovery Director Professor Patricia Maguire spoke to Rob Mooney, Deputy Head of Communications, NPHET Behavioural Change Subgroup, Covid Tracker App Development Team, about, “The Role of Social and Behavioural Research in Strategic Communications”. In case you missed it, here are our Top Takeaway Thoughts. 


Emotional State of the Nation

Back in March, informed by the WHO and the ECDC, Mooney and his team developed a weekly survey to understand how Irish people were coping with COVID-19. Using a representative sample of the population, they asked what respondents understood about COVID-19 and from where they were getting their information. They were keen to uncover “what's the emotional state of the nation? How are people handling this?” The surveys looked at whether people were adopting public health measures and guidelines. “Fundamentally a key tool in suppressing the virus is behavioural changing, and our role was to ensure that people have the tools to do that properly.”


Advice for Living with Covid

Mooney’s interest in behavioural science began as a sociology graduate in UCD. The “core” of what his work is understanding “the barriers that exist for people to improve their overall quality of life”. He says it is important to differentiate between what is within one’s control and what is not. Some key behaviours that have helped people in these Covid-19 times include exercising outdoors, engaging with family, pursuing a hobby and having a structure to the day. 


Levels of Worry

Worry about Covid-19 reached a peak of 7.4 out of 10 in the last lockdown and went down to 5.3 around the first easing of restrictions. Levels have now risen back up to 7.2. “It’s a blunt measure in that we're getting an overall level of worry.” But it is understandable. “Contrary to some popular social media discourses, this is not the flu. It has an impact on people.” 


 Creative and Resilient

Behavioural research shows that we Irish have been resilient and creative in the crisis. Restrictions have led to “this creative space where we're reflecting on life to a certain degree and I think that's opened up opportunities”. Mooney gives one example of young people drawing a volleyball course on the beach to get exercise safely with friends staying 2mtrs apart. It has been an insightful measure of how we “collectively respond to key societal challenges”. We are in an unprecedented situation, and it is “very encouraging” to think that we might apply these new-found cocreation skills to other areas, “such as the environment or some other key [societal] challenges we might face going forward”. Prior to joining the Department of Health, Mooney’s area of research was environmental sustainability.


Covid Tracker Success

The key purpose of the Covid Tracker App is to digitally contact trace close contacts of confirmed cases by anonymously swapping keys between app users that are stored on their phones. In this way tracker app can alert you to close contacts who may not be known to you augmenting the manual contact tracing system. A key benefit is that this allows us identify people sooner, people to self-isolate sooner, and reduces the time that the virus can circulate in the population; all key to reducing the reproductive rate. Developing this technology, however, was only one half of the challenge; it was not going to be effective “if people weren't going to download and use it. Because its success is based on the more people using it, the more effective it's going to be”. 2.1 million people have downloaded the app and there is an active user base of 1.3 million people “which is 35% of the adult population over 16 in Ireland. That makes it one of the most successful [contact tracing] apps in the world... This is a testament to the collective response of the Irish people”. The app has now been replicated across the world, and Ireland have led the way on interoperability setting the foundations for “safer international travel” when that is again possible.


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