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Why the 'social distancing' message works

Updated: Jul 3, 2023

The persistence of public references to ‘social distancing’ show that you only get one shot at setting the terms of the conversation.

Before Covid-19 existed, ‘social distancing’ was embedded in the Ministry of Health’s Pandemic Plan as a key containment measure. When Covid-19 hit, the operational phrase went mainstream as a message.

As the crisis hit, the Ministry of Health had the undivided attention of a public looking for instructions. We swiftly adopted the previously unfamiliar terminology and implemented it.

But then someone got to questioning whether it was okay to pathologize social engagement: wouldn’t it be better to focus on physical, not social, distance?

Too late. The Ministry lost control over the phrase because it was stickier than they imagined, given public receptiveness and its aptness to the situation. It has tried to switch to the new phrase despite even the Prime Minister continuing to use the old one.

Some communicators have claimed both phrases are not descriptive of the action people should take. They recommend concrete examples such as “don’t leave the house”.

The mistake is to think that the public care about the nuances, or are so stupid that they need precise instruction.

The first message worked. People clearly understood its intention and universal application and did not think it meant stop talking to each other.

It is possible to rewrite and drive adoption of a new phrase by sheer willpower, but it is a waste of energy if the original phrase is working. Better to accept it and move on to providing new information.

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